Illini basketball focuses on defense in season opener

When the Illinois men’s basketball team faces Georgia Southern to start the regular season Friday, the Illini’s focus will be on defense.

Illinois worked on bettering its defense this week in practice, but to have success in Friday’s regular season opener, Illinois will have to worry about a versatile Georgia Southern team that will change defenses throughout the game.

“They pose some interesting challenges this early, from the standpoint that they’ve played three-quarter court pressure,” head coach John Groce said. “They’ve played full court pressure. They’ve played zone. They’ve played man.”

In order to have success against the changing defenses of Georgia Southern, Groce said the Illini need to recognize the changes in the defense and limit mistakes with the basketball.

Illinois shared the ball and limited turnovers in last Friday’s exhibition against Quincy; the team finished with 19 assists and only seven turnovers in the game.

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While the Illini will need to identify the Eagles’ changing defense, they also have been working on bettering their own defense in preparation for the game.

Illinois finished last season at No. 22 in the country in terms of scoring defense last year, but the team’s defensive output in the exhibition didn’t impress Groce. He said the Illini didn’t play well on-ball or transition defense against Quincy, and that the Eagles will exploit the Illini in those two areas if the team doesn’t improve defensively.

“They’re pretty good at those two things,” Groce said. “They play a good tempo, a fast tempo.

“Those guys can make plays, either in space or off of pick and rolls. We’re going to be challenged by that.”

On the offensive end against Quincy, the Illini had nothing to complain about. Illinois scored 91 points in the exhibition without sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn playing.

Groce said that although he won’t start, Nunn is “full-go” to play against Georgia Southern after he was held out of the “Illini All In” scrimmage and the exhibition while recovering from a knee injury.

While Nunn will definitely be another boost for the Illini offensively, the team will also look for freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke and sophomore Malcolm Hill to contribute from the beginning of the season.

“Our young guys really came along,” guard Rayvonte Rice said. “Finke, Leron, Malcolm, all of them just playing real confident.”

In order to continue the team’s offensive success, center Nnanna Egwu said the Illini will need to continue to share the ball as effectively as they did against Quincy.

Egwu also said that although this will be the last season opener of his college career, he hasn’t begun to feel any extra emotional toll yet.

While the Illini should probably cruise to an easy win over the Eagles, Egwu now realizes the importance of every one of his final games.

“You can’t really take any games off,” Egwu said. 

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.