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A big (10) challenge for the Eagles tonight

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    First the Atlantic Coast Conference and now the Big 10.
    It’s been a heck of a week for Georgia Southern’s men’s basketball team.
    Four days removed from an impressive showing at Duke, the Eagles will face a second huge challenge tonight when they meet Illinois for an 8 p.m. game in Champaign, Ill.
    “It’s going to be another great experience for us to go up there and try to pull of a win,” said senior Donte Gennie, who is averaging 15 points and 6.5 rebounds a game.
    An Eagle team searching for an upset may have caught the Illini at the perfect time. Illinois (2-0) will be without several key players, including its top returner, senior Rich McBride, who is serving a four-game suspension for a drunken driving arrest in September. Sophomore point guard Jamar Smith is also out with a high ankle sprain that should bench him for at least a month, and forward Brian Randle may miss the game after aggravating a groin injury Monday night.
    Those losses seem like good news for the Eagles (1-1), but GSU coach Jeff Price knows Illinois’ bench runs deep. Without its top contributors, Illinois’ inexperienced players pulled through and lifted the Illini to a 76-55 victory over Jackson State Wednesday.
    “Usually when people get hurt other people step up,” Price said. “I don’t think our guys will pay much attention to (the absent players). I think we’re just excited about the opportunity to play a Big 10 team.”
    Price has been pleased with his team’s performance so far. The Eagles went 1-1 in the College Basketball Experience Classic at Duke, defeating UC Davis, 116-73, in their season opener on Sunday before falling to the Blue Devils, 72-48, on Monday. GSU led Duke for the majority of the first half before the Blue Devils used their defense to pull away late in the game. Junior Dwayne Foreman has paced the Eagles with a team-high 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game.
    “I think our team has shown some toughness, some heart and the ability to play in a pretty hostile environment,” Price said. “It spoke well for our guys to go in and be able to play in (Cameron Indoor Stadium). We didn’t seem bothered by the atmosphere at Duke, and it’s a good thing because it’ll be another great atmosphere at Illinois. We’ll see how we stand up to it.”
    The Eagles are hoping the pair of games they played at Cameron Indoor will work to their favor tonight.
    “It will help us come out and relax because we know how it feels to play in big arenas when the crowd is going crazy,” Gennie said.
    Like they did at Duke, the Eagles will have to overcome a size disadvantage against the Illini.
    “They are a big team, so it’s just going to be a physical game all night,” Gennie said. “Coach has been preparing us all week, so I think we are going to be ready. We just have to use some of our quickness to run up and down the court and try to get their big men tired.”
    Illinois is coached by Bruce Weber, whose 141 victories in the last five years make him the second-winningest coach in college basketball during that span. Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski ranks first in that category with 147 wins. The Illini were 26-7 a year ago when they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
    “Obviously it is another huge challenge,” Price said. “The reason we play these games is to make us better for the Southern Conference. I thought last year it served us well, and I’m hoping that this year it serves the same purpose.”
    Tonight’s game will be televised on ESPN Plus.

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

Duke's Josh McRoberts is hounded by Georgia Southern's Diogo Salazar in the CBE Classic in Durham, N.C., on Monday. The Eagles will play Illinois tonight in another tough non-conference game designed to make the team battle tested before SoCon play begins.

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