Jan 12, 2014; Evanston, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach John Groce reacts to a call against his team during the second half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini 49-43. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Purdue Boilermakers Preview and Live Thread

John Groce has to be somewhat exasperated by what he has seen out of his Illinois Fighting Illini these past two games. An inability to finish plays at the rim has suddenly cropped up, and the Illini are left scratching their heads trying to figure out who put the lid on the basket on their offensive end of the floor.

Yesterday, we found out part of the reason Rayvonte Rice struggled at Northwestern was due to an adductor strain. Earlier today, an update was provided by Steve Greenberg of the Sun Times, but unfortunately it’s really not much more than we all already know. How much he will be available to play tonight remains to be seen, but Groce indicated Rice has been receiving treatment since the diagnosis so it seems like he is making every effort to play.

Should Rice sit, or play limited minutes, one would have to suspect that Kendrick Nunn will be left to pick up the majority of those minutes. Nunn has been showing well defensively, and in the end that should probably buy him the first chance to fill any vacant minutes that might crop up. It also doesn’t hurt that Nunn chipped in 5 points against Northwestern, although the Illini will need more tonight.

Replacing minutes is one thing, but replacing Rice’s scoring is a completely different matter entirely. Illinois is going to have to find those points somewhere and the best place to look is no further than Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey. In the past two Big Ten games, Ekey has posted a grand total of 8 points, and Egwu has posted 10 total points. While their rebounding has been much better, their offense has suffered and it’s time for them to pick it up starting tonight. It’s not unreasonable for Coach Groce to place this type of expectation upon these two considering they are upper classmen and have gotten the job done in the past.

The Boilermakers invade the Farm tonight fresh off their first Big Ten victory which came at the expense of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Their record currently sits at 11-5 overall, 1-2 in the conference.

Purdue is led in scoring by the Johnson brothers, Terone (13.6 ppg) and Ronnie (11.4 ppg). They are both shooting better than 40% from the field with Terone at 44.3% and Ronnie at 42.7%, and they are both shooting better than 38% from 3 point land with Terone at 38.2% and Ronnie at 39.1%. Their achilles heel is the free throw line where they both convert less than 63% of the time. While these two guards are definitely players that need to be limited for the Illini to have success, there is a big man who poses much more of a problem.

The key matchup in this one will be 7’0″ sophomore center A.J. Hammons vs. Nnanna Egwu. Hammons has been talked about very favorably, but the knock seems to be his consistency, and it shows in his stat lines from game to game. Against Ohio State, Hammons posted an 18 point, 16 rebound, 5 block effort. Then against Minnesota he posted a less than spectacular 7 point, 1 rebound, 0 blocked shots line. However, in the Boilermakers last game against Nebraska he posted another 18 point effort and sprinkled in 4 blocks. He is clearly a defensive deterrent in the paint. So, when he is on the floor I look for Illinois to attempt some mid-range jumpers as opposed to driving directly into a blocked shot. That said, Illinois MUST be aggressive when he is not on the court and attack the rim.

Three Things I’d Like to See Tonight:

Protect the Farm! – Illinois struggled mightily on offense the past two games, both of which were on the road. Here’s hoping the lids come off the baskets on their home court, and the Illini find it much easier to put points on the board. If Illinois harbors thoughts of appearing in the NCAA tournament it seems that winning at home will be a key to them making it there.

Aggression from Egwu – Far too often this season we have seen Egwu settle for turnaround, fall away jumpers instead of aggressively attacking the rim when he manages to get the ball in the post. I’d like to see him stop drifting along in the game and become a force. If Rice is out, or limited, Egwu needs to bring some aggression on the offensive end to help fill the scoring void that will be created by his absence.

Points from the bench – Not only do I expect to see Egwu and Ekey step up and produce tonight, but it’s about time for the bench to start producing when they get the chance. Austin Colbert has battled foul trouble in his limited time this season. Jaylon Tate hasn’t looked like the same player since Big Ten play started. Malcolm Hill has flashed potential, but he has not played anywhere near the level I imagined he would. Nunn and Morgan have shown well, particularly of late, but I still want to see more out of them. It’s unfair to come down on any of these 5 too hard because they are freshman, and the learning curve is steep going from high school to high major college basketball, but the bottom line is that the team needs them all to provide more production when they are on the floor.

The Skinny

When: Wednesday, January 15, 2014, 8 PM CST

Where: State Farm Center – Champaign-Urbana, IL

TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)

Announcers: Kevin Kugler (Play by Play) and Shon Morris (Analyst)

Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have! I-L-L!

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.

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Tags: Illinois Fighting Illini John Groce Jon Ekey Kendrick Nunn Nnanna Egwu Rayvonte Rice

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