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December 9, 2013

Illini defensive strength to be tested


CHAMPAIGN - Illinois forward Jon Ekey would welcome a personal 4-for-6 performance from three and a 12-for-23 team performance from beyond the arc every time he takes the court. But the fifth-year senior has played enough college basketball to know the Illini's scorching shooting statistics during Sunday's 81-62 rout of Auburn are scarce during the course of a season - especially for this Illini squad.

"Shooting will come and go," Ekey said. "Some days, we'll be hot and we'll be making a lot. Sometimes not. So just always be [working] on the defensive side, which is what we work on every day anyways."

Illinois (8-1) won't burn the nets often this season. They rank 11th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (33.7 percent) and are tied for tenth in scoring offense (72.3 ppg). Sure, the Illini could have a great night or two - they made 10 threes against Bradley and 12 on Sunday - but none of the UI starters qualify as sharpshooters. Their career three-point percentages are as follows: Joseph Bertrand 36.7 percent) Ekey 36.5 percent, Rayvonte Rice 27.9 percent, Tracy Abrams 26.1 percent and Nnanna Egwu (3-for-14, 21.4 percent). A bench full of freshman lacks sharpshooter as well.

Thus, Illinois will struggle to score some nights - especially in the Big Ten. So the defense has to be good. Based on early results, it could be.

Entering Tuesday's game against Dartmouth (3-3), Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (58.7 points per game) behind only Ohio State. According to KenPom.com, the Illini also rank 11th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (42.4 percent) and 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

"That needs to be our calling card," Illini coach John Groce said.

But the Illini defensive numbers are a bit skewed and likely won't remain as impressive for the foreseeable future.

Only one Illini opponent so far ranks in the top-100 nationally in both offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage: Valparaiso. Only three other Illini opponents rank in the top 200 in either statistical category: IPFW, Georgia Tech and Auburn.

Groce will discover if he can depend on his defense during the next few weeks. Dartmouth ranks 66th in the country with a healthy 38-percent three-point percentage, but the Illini physicality, athleticism and length give them a major advantage - an advantage they won't have the following two Saturdays.

Oregon, whom the Illini play in Portland on Saturday, ranks fifth in the country in offensive efficiency, fourth in effective field-goal percentage and 10th in the country in three-point percentage (43.4 percent). Missouri, whom the Illini play in St. Louis on Dec. 21, rank 37th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in effective field-goal percentage. The Illini will truly be tested by the Ducks' guards, led by Joseph Young, and the Tigers' perimeter attack, led by Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson.

"We've got to be good at defending and rebounding," Illini coach John Groce said. "We've got to continue to beat that drum. I think that's really important for this team. We're going to continue to get tested moving forward."

Groce thinks he has the personnel to improve upon a defense that finished 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense last season.

"We got some guys that individually have some gifts and talents defensively, probably more collectively than we had last year," Groce said. "So I think we've got a chance to be an even better defensive team than we were last year. Late in the year last year, I thought we were pretty good defensively. But we've got a chance I think to be better than that team on defense."

The Illini are much improved on the interior. Junior center Nnanna Egwu has made drastic strides. When he's not blocking shots - his 2.4 block per game average ranks third in the Big Ten - he's altering them. Foul trouble is the only thing holding him back. The athletic Ekey also has provided a defensive improvement at the power forward position. The Illini also are more physical and athletic on the wing with Rice at shooting guard. Groce also has said Bertrand has improved from a subpar defender last season to possibly the team's best defender this season.

"I think we're pretty big," Abrams said. "I think that helps us out a lot with physicality, having Ray and Joe. We just got to continue to use that as an advantage and keep it up."

Abrams, the pestering point guard at the top of the defense, added that Groce's system focuses on "team" defense.

"We all rely on each other," Abrams said. "I think that's the big difference [from the past]. When you know guys are going to be there for you, it's easy to play different because you're not worried about little things like getting beat and stuff like that."

Added freshman Malcolm Hill: "It's not more on how your man does scoring the ball. It's more of a team defense."

Illinois' defense is less predictable as well. Unlike former Illini coach Bruce Weber - who had some very efficient defenses using strictly man-to-man principles - Groce mixes zone defenses in with his man-to-man looks. It's still a work in progress, though. Groce said the Illini were "bad" in the zone at the start of Sunday's game against Auburn.

"We've got to be good in both," Groce said. "I think our team has the chance to be good in both. We practice that way. Last year, we sprinkled [zone] in but not as much as we have this year. It's been good for us, and we're going to need it to be good for us moving forward."

Illinois needs defense, in general. Shooting tends to be streaky, especially on a team with too few shooters. Will the defense be dependable enough to carry the team to wins? We'll soon find out.

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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