After week off, Illinois basketball returns to action against South Dakota

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After week off, Illinois basketball returns to action against South Dakota

Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn takes a 3-pointer during the Illini's loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 1 at State Farm Center.

Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn takes a 3-pointer during the Illini's loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 1 at State Farm Center.

Tyler Courtney

Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn takes a 3-pointer during the Illini's loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 1 at State Farm Center.

Tyler Courtney

Tyler Courtney

Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn takes a 3-pointer during the Illini's loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 1 at State Farm Center.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

After last Saturday’s clunker against UIC at United Center, it was for the best that Illinois basketball got a week-long break before its next game.

For the fans, it was a chance to step back a bit from the program, take some deep breaths and release some of the frustration that accompanies squeaking by an awful UIC team. For the Illini players — who got a couple days off from practice early in the week — the longest break between games in their schedule so far gave them time to focus on final exams and the opportunity to regroup as a team.

Even though further uncertainty was cast on John Groce’s squad Thursday when he announced that injured forward Leron Black is now out indefinitely as he recovers from a meniscus tear, it would be hard to argue that this hiatus could have come at a better time. Black hasn’t played since Dec. 5 and hasn’t looked right since the UAB game three weeks ago, so it’s not like Groce was counting on him to contribute much at this point. But Black’s healthy teammates should have fresh legs Saturday against South Dakota as they look to extend a three-game win streak.

The Coyotes will bring a 38 percent conversion rate from beyond the 3-point line to State Farm Center, which should be a concern to Illini fans. South Dakota isn’t a stellar shooting team, but teams have shown that you don’t need to be stellar to make it rain from deep against Illinois so far this season. The Illini are one of the worst teams in the country at defending the 3-point shot, ranking 316th out of 351 Division I teams in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage.

South Dakota has a balanced and veteran offensive attack, with five players — including four upperclassmen — averaging double figures in points per game. This is also a Coyote team that went into Minnesota two weeks ago and beat the Gophers at The Barn in double overtime.

To avoid falling back to .500 and becoming South Dakota’s second Big Ten victim this season, the Illini need to see improvement in two areas: perimeter defense and rebounding. I sound like a broken record in each game preview, stressing the importance of Illinois shoring up its two biggest flaws. But until the Illini actually upgrade those two areas, they’ll be a beatable team nearly every game.

On offense, Illinois has definitely been good enough to beat mid-major teams like South Dakota. The Illini are in the top 10 percent of teams in the nation when it comes to taking care of the ball, but they’re still susceptible to painful scoring droughts. Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke all have the ability on offense to keep Illinois in games, even as team defense continues to suffer.

A win against South Dakota won’t inspire the masses, but a loss at home would be crushing for an Illini team trying to finish a painful nonconference season with five straight victories. At this point, Groce’s main goal should be entering the Big Ten season unscathed the rest of the way.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94