Illinois impressive defensively, Dartmouth up next

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) attempts a layup during the game against Chicago State at State Farm Center on Nov. 23. The Illini won 77-53.

John Groce’s team looked a lot like the 2012-13 Illinois squad Sunday when it knocked down 12-of-23 3-point attempts in an 81-62 win over Auburn in Atlanta. Groce said the first half might have been the best his team has played all season. The Illini held a 41-17 advantage at halftime.

Junior Rayvonte Rice didn’t really know how to explain it. The shots were just falling. But that prolific 3-point percentage was a rarity for the 2013-14 version of the Illini.

The team’s defense has been consistent throughout its 8-1 start this season. As of Monday, the Illini were ranked eighth in the nation with only 58.7 points per game allowed. They were also holding teams to just 37.3 percent shooting from the field, good for 16th in the country.

“It’s just being there for each other,” senior forward Jon Ekey said. “In the game (Sunday), everyone was there helping each other. We got a lot of balls that we just dug out, whether in the post or if someone was trying to drive, we always have someone helping.”

Rice said Groce always puts more emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. And this year, Groce has been tinkering with things a lot more than he did last season. The Illini have shown much more zone defense after playing primarily man-to-man a year ago.  

“Our team can be good at both,” Groce said. “(Sunday) we weren’t very good in the zone. Our team has a chance to be good at both. We practice that way. Last year we sprinkled it in, but not as much as we have this year.”

The zone has contributed to Illinois’ improved defense, and so has the added length of newcomers Ekey, Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert. Center Nnanna Egwu, who played through a cold on Sunday, has been a presence in the post when he hasn’t been in foul trouble.

“(Defense) needs to be our calling card,” Groce said. “We have some guys that have some talent and gifts defensively. And we’re going to be tested moving forward.”

Illinois has a couple tough games coming up with Oregon and Missouri, but first the Illini have to get through Dartmouth at State Farm Center on Tuesday night.

Dartmouth (3-3) shoots the ball at a 36.6 percent clip from behind the 3-point arc. Of the opponents Illinois has played thus far, Groce compared the Big Green to Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, who defeated Dartmouth 80-64 on Saturday. The Illini only beat IPFW by a two-point margin at home on Nov. 29.

“Dartmouth is a team that shoots the basketball really well,” Groce said. “I don’t know if they recruit a guy that doesn’t shoot threes. If you allow them to feel comfortable, then they can pick you apart.”

The two schools have never played each other in men’s basketball before. For Illinois, Tuesday’s match-up will be its final game in State Farm Center until the conference opener on Dec. 31 against Indiana.

In between, the players have Oregon, Missouri, UIC and finals. This stretch will give fans a good picture of how good this Illinois team can be. If the shots keep falling like they did Sunday, it will be something worth watching.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.