Illini face Miami in top-25 matchup

Much has changed for No. 24 Illinois since the team lost to Miami in the NCAA tournament two years ago.

Last year the Illini filtered in a new class of players, including five freshmen, who matured on the court. This season, Illinois (6-0) has been prolific offensively, averaging 90 points per game in its first six games, and has a top-25 ranking to show for it.

If Illinois’ performance last weekend in Las Vegas — where the Illini topped Indiana State and Baylor — showed one characteristic from the 2013 team, it’s the Illini’s defensive ability.

“Our defense is still here,” senior center Nnanna Egwu said. “That’s really encouraging. Obviously with the improvements we made offensively, sometimes we’re kind of relaxed defensively. But we’re still the same defensive team.”

Illinois’ defense will face its biggest test of the season Tuesday when it travels to Florida to play one of the most explosive offensive teams it will see all season in No. 15 Miami (7-0).

Junior guard Angel Rodriguez leads a deep Hurricanes team that head coach John Groce said reminds him a lot of last year’s Michigan squad: both teams have a multitude of shooters.

Groce called Rodriguez one of the best, if not the best, point guard in the nation and said Rodriguez plays with a swagger and an edge that will be hard for the Illini to stop.

Through seven games the Hurricanes, like the Illini, are shooting the ball at an extremely high percentage from behind the 3-point arc. Miami is shooting 45.7 percent from three and 50.4 percent from field.

“(They have) multiple shooters, passers, dribblers,” Groce said. “They execute well. Their spacing’s tremendous.

“They’re terrific offensively.”

Illinois has been no slouch on the offensive side of the ball, shooting 43.4 percent from three and 48.2 percent from the field on the year.

While Miami’s varied offense has given opponents trouble this season, for senior guard Rayvonte Rice, the key to beating Miami is simple: Play good defense.

“We just have to get back on defense and try to make it hard for them to score,” Rice said.

Tuesday’s matchup will be Illinois’ first true road game of the season, as the two games in Las Vegas were neutral site games against Indiana State and Baylor. While the team is successful at home, sophomore guard Malcolm Hill said he doesn’t mind going on the road.

“I’m always excited to play road games,” Hill said. “Those are always some of my favorite games to play, because it’s just me and my brothers against the world.”

For the Illini, the biggest challenge may be not letting revenge get the best of them. The last game these two teams played was for a chance to go the Sweet 16, and Groce said the Illini will need to play with emotion, but not get overly emotional thinking about the past.

Egwu echoed his coach’s sentiment, while pointing out the differences between the two games.

“Tomorrow’s a whole different team, whole different challenge,” Egwu said. “This game’s played in December. That game was played in March. Right now we want to get a good road win.”

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