Illinois looked really good against Northwestern on Thursday while shooting a school-record 70.5 percent from the field and also hitting 64.3 percent from the 3-point line in an 88-63 win that was much easier than the score indicated. Illinois hit 81.8 percent in the first half (18 of 22) and through the first three conference games, the Illini are shooting 64.7 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the 3-point line.

No matter the record-setting shooting or a hot streak that's extended three games into the Big Ten Conference basketball race, there always seems to be danger lurking around the corner for No. 20 Illinois.

The Illini took a big step in rebuilding trust with the fan base with wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga before a loss to Illinois-Chicago shattered the confidence outside the locker room. It was a repeat of the previous season, when Illinois followed four blowouts to start the season with a lost weekend in Las Vegas.

Just when things look good, these Illini have a tendency to find the monkey wrench.

Illinois looked really good against Northwestern on Thursday while shooting a school-record 70.5 percent from the field and also hitting 64.3 percent from the 3-point line in an 88-63 win that was much easier than the score indicated. Illinois hit 81.8 percent in the first half (18 of 22) and through the first three conference games, the Illini are shooting 64.7 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the 3-point line.

Those kind of numbers are rarely seen.

Yet there's a feeling of vulnerability after that loss to UIC, when the complacent Illini stumbled against a team sitting 244 in the computer rankings. So when Illinois (13-3 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten) plays at Penn State Tuesday (8 p.m., BTN), the Illini want to show everyone -- and themselves -- they've grown up a bit and can handle prosperity.

"The last couple of years, we've dealt with that too much,'' said Illinois senior center Mike Tisdale, who reached double figures for the first time in five games with 13 points and five rebounds against the Wildcats. "Coach (Bruce Weber) has been talking about it the last couple of days. Hopefully, we've matured enough to fix that problem and not let it happen again.

"In the Big Ten, there are no easy wins, no easy games. Hopefully, that doesn't happen again.''

Penn State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2001. The folks in Happy Valley don't pay much attention to coach Ed DeChellis' team. Only 5,342 showed up for the 83-68 loss to Purdue on Wednesday, and the Nittany Lions look like a team headed again for one of the lowest seeds in the Big Ten Tournament.

But Penn State became an unlikely rival for two seasons, sweeping the two regular-season Big Ten games against the Illini in the two previous seasons before Illinois swept both games a year ago. Illinois escaped with a one-point win over the Nittany Lions in Assembly Hall before a 10-point victory in State College.

The three-game winning streak soothed the pain from December losses to UIC and Missouri, but the healing isn't complete.

"It's a lot better feeling than you had at Christmas,'' Weber said. "At the same time, I still have the same feelings at the start of games. It's a long journey. A lot of things can happen.

"We have to keep moving forward and improving. That's the biggest thing. If you stay stagnant, somebody is going to go by you.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.