Illinois basketball looks for better defense against Purdue

Illinois’ Leron Black (12) goes up for a shot during the game against Indiana at StateFarm Center on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

By Sean Neumann

The defense needs to be better.

That was Illinois head basketball coach John Groce’s thought following an 80-74 loss to Indiana on Sunday — a game his Illini team let go in the final minutes.

Illinois couldn’t put a stop to a 13-2 Hoosiers run that ended the game and handed the team to its fourth conference loss. It was the fourth loss in six games for a struggling Illini squad.

But the trouble isn’t over for Illinois. A 7-foot A.J. Hammons will likely give the Illini a headache under the basket Wednesday night when Illinois (12-7, 2-4 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (11-7, 3-2).

The junior center has averaged 6.2 rebounds per game and just over 10 points, while leading the Big Ten with 45 blocks this year. Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu is averaging just over five rebounds and has struggled as of late.

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Egwu fouled out of Sunday’s loss to Indiana with just two rebounds and no points in 27 minutes — a performance Groce said wasn’t up to par.

The senior center’s 102 rebounds in 19 games is third on the team behind guards Rayvonte Rice (105) and Malcolm Hill (103).

Indiana head coach Tom Crean said Egwu’s performance is about more than statistics.

“Egwu, to me, is as versatile, valuable and as mobile as any big I can think of,” Crean said after Sunday’s game. “It’s not about points and rebounds. It’s about his action.”

Crean said Egwu’s multiple efforts are key to his impact on games. 

His efforts are subtly translating onto the stat sheet, though. Egwu’s team-leading 32 blocks this season give him a career total of 174 — just three shy of tying the Illini record for blocks in a career.

And Illinois might finally get help for Egwu in forward Leron Black, who has steadily improved throughout the season.

“He’s making fewer and fewer mistakes everyday,” Groce said of the freshman.

Black had nine rebounds and eight points Sunday against Indiana.

“He’s definitely getting better,” junior guard Ahmad Starks said. “He always brings that aggressive intensity to the game. We always like that.”

Offensively, the Illini have been impressive on the court. Behind the hot shooting duo of Starks and sophomore Kendrick Nunn, the Illini made 20 3-pointers in the past two games combined, scoring more than 70 points in each.

Purdue ranks last in the Big Ten in opposing team’s 3-point percentage and has allowed an average of 65.3 points per game this season, 11th in the conference.

“Those shots will come all year,” Starks said.

But if the Illini defense continues to struggle in conference play Wednesday, they’ll need those shots to count.

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