Defend & Conquer

Coach John Groce says his team's calling card can be defensive success...

Illinois coach John Groce has repeatedly said his team played it's best last season when it was defending and rebounding near the end of the conference slate.

He preferred the look his team had then as opposed to the high-percentage shooting tendencies the team showed while racing to a 12-0 start.

As good as last year's group was at defending by season's end (good enough to win one tournament game and nearly another), he thinks his current team can be even better.

"That needs to be our calling card," he said. "We've got some guys individually that have some talent and gifts defensively, probably more collectively than what we had last year."

Groce keeps talking about the potential, and solid results have already been posted.

Illinois has held opponents to 42.4 percent in effective field goal percentage (with added weight on 3-point shots) this season, good enough for 11th-best in the country. Opponents have shot less than 40 percent on two-point tries. Only four teams in the country have a better mark.

With the offensive production still a work-in-progress, a strong, gritty defensive effort can be this team's identity.

"There's no question. It needs to be. It has to be," Groce said. "We've got to be good at defending and rebounding. We've got to continue to beat that drum. I think that's really important for this team."

The strength of the first nine opponents isn't exactly overwhelming, which has perhaps boosted the stats a bit. Sunday against Auburn though, the Illini held high-scoring guard Chris Denson, averaging over 21 a game entering, to eight points.

Despite that, it was a late-game skid that had Groce calling a timeout to bark at his players about the importance of playing sound defense at all times.

Trailing by 32, the Tigers reeled off a 12-2 run against mostly Illini young reserves, forcing Groce to stop play and let his players know his feelings.

"I was more irritated with the fact that they were scoring every time," he said. "We struggled in that stretch and to be honest when the vets came back in they struggled a little bit to stop them.

"We've got to learn how to play 40 minutes regardless of circumstance. Up big, down big, close game. So we're trying to teach them that as well. We'll get there."

Oregon and Missouri are approaching on the schedule, two neutral site contests against bigger and better foes than previously faced.

With a bench that essentially consists solely of freshmen, Groce says the teaching moments like the one against Auburn will help prepare his guys.

"That's given them valuable experience in non-conference play that will hopefully allow those guys to grow faster than they would have normally because we're going to need that with what we have coming up," he said.

Groce has routinely been cited for his work developing players on the offense. But he's the one who keeps bringing up the defensive end of the floor, making it clear where his priorities are.

"Late in the year last year I thought we were pretty good defensively," he said. "We've got a chance to be better than that team on defense."

WHAT: Illinois vs. Dartmouth - Champaign - State Farm Center - Tuesday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m. CST.

WHO TO WATCH: Illini center/forward Nnanna Egwu. The big man in the middle felt under the weather heading into the Auburn matchup. He scored two points and had only one rebound -- both season lows. Let's see if Egwu gets back on track against the Big Green.

Dartmouth forward Connor Boehm. The sophomore is averaging 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. At 6-foot-7, 235-pounds, he shooting 62 percent from the field, 50 percent on treys.

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