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January 24, 2014

Rice's regression halts Illini progress

Two steps forward and one big leap back.

Two of Illinois basketball's struggling veteran starters busted out of slumps during Thursday's 62-55 loss at Ohio State but its most productive star slunk into the basketball abyss. If the Illini (13-7, 2-5 Big Ten) - a team with little margin for error - want to crawl out of its current hole, their starters must hit a simultaneous stride. From what we've seen during the current five-game skid, that might be asking a lot.

The Illini actually saw some encouraging signs Thursday. Nnanna Egwu finally regained some confidence. The Illini center, who had a combined 10 points in the previous four games and was shooting 24.4 percent during his first six Big Ten games, scored 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting and also hauled in nine, finishing one rebound short of his second double-double of the season. Egwu had a defensive rebound percentage under 10 percent in four of the last five games. His defensive rebound percentage on Thursday was 23.4 percent, while his offensive rebound rate was 11.3 percent.

"I think the big thing for him is he can't get caught up in shot-making," Illinois coach John Groce said. "It's great if he does. Today, he was 5-for-9, that's awesome. But he's really good defensively. He blocked shots. He was affecting things around the basket. He affects field-goal percentage.

"The biggest thing I was on him about was rebounding. That's why it was great to see him get nine tonight in 33 minutes."

Joseph Bertrand, who scored a season-low four points in two of his previous three games, kept a dog-paddling Illini offense afloat with his aggression. The Illini senior, who was benched for most of Saturday's second half vs. Michigan State for a lack of assertiveness on offense, defense and the glass, scored a team-high 19 points.

"It was good to see Joe Joe and Nnanna make a couple because they hadn't done that lately, so that was great," Groce said.

But the Illini's leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice - who entered Big Ten play leading the conference in scoring - was held scoreless for the first time in his collegiate career. Rice not only put up a big doughnut from the field (0-for-8) but he also failed to get to the free-throw line for the second-straight game.

An adductor strain suffered two weeks ago at Northwestern, the second loss of the current five-game skid, obviously has affected Rice. But he's playing. During the five straight losses, he's averaging 33.0 minutes but is shooting just 26.6 percent. As long as he's playing though, Rice has to be more productive.

The Drake transfer shot 50.0 percent during nonconference play, including 59.6 percent from inside the arc. But Rice is struggling to score at the rim against longer, more physical, more athletic Big Ten defenses. He is shooting 32.2 percent from two during conference play.

"He'll be the first to tell you, he doesn't have any excuses," Groce said. "We have to figure out a way to help him. He'll probably take some of that onus on himself. He needs to play a bit better. We've got to help him. I don't think it had anything to do with [the injury]. I think it had more to do with Ohio State's defense."

Some say Groce should bench Rice until his injury heals. But an adductor strain may take four to six weeks to fully heal. Illinois can't afford to bench its top scorer and one of its few offensive threats for that long. Can it even afford to bench its struggling scorer for a few games or a few minutes? Groce obviously doesn't think so.

He stuck with Rice and junior guard Tracy Abrams (who had seven second-half points after going scoreless in the first half) for most of the second half, while freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill combined for just 10 second-half minutes.

Groce again rode his veterans in the closing minutes, probably justifiably so. Though Tate created for his teammates in the first half (three assists, two turnovers), he and Hill each committed a costly turnover in their limited second-half action. Simply, the freshmen haven't gained Groce's trust like the veterans. For Groce, his team's current inconsistency just doesn't give him great options.

"[The freshmen] came in there in the second half and didn't make as many plays maybe as they did in the first half," Groce said. "That and I think Egwu was playing really well. I thought Bertrand was playing really well. [Jon] Ekey (11 points) was doing some good things. Obviously, Ray and Tracy, we've rode those guys all year. Those guys are an important part of our team, and we're going to stick with those guys."

Despite Rice giving the Illini nothing on offense, the Illini had their opportunities against the underachieving and struggling Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4), who snapped out of its first four-game losing streak in six seasons. But Ohio State made big plays - LaQuinton Ross's and-1 and Lenzelle Smith's clutch three in the closing minutes - while the Illini did not (Rice's offensive foul turnover and Bertrand's missed three in the closing minutes).

The season isn't over for Illinois. They bounced back from a 2-7 Big Ten start last season to make the NCAA Tournament. But Illinois doesn't have the resume-boosting wins from last season (at Gonzaga and versus Butler). And while the opportunity to rebound is still available, the opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer. Illinois now faces must-win situations in many of its remaining winnable games.

To preserve any hope, the Illinois starters have to be in lockstep. During the five-game streak, one or more have been weighing the team down.

"They're a proud group," Groce said. "You get on a streak like we have now at five, you can go in there and it's probably not a ball of joy in there. I wouldn't think it would be. We want them to have fun. It should be fun playing basketball at this level. We talked about that a lot this week. I do want them to be fearless. I want them to be tough and together and have some fun. But that's when you have fun. When you're competing with toughness and togetherness and you're sharing the ball and you're executing and you're locked in, that's fun. You control some of that with your effort and your execution."

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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