Illini face toughest challenge yet in Oregon
After a 72-65 win over Dartmouth on Tuesday, Illinois head basketball coach John Groce sat between center Nnanna Egwu and freshman guard Malcolm Hill and told the media how happy he was that his team would finally have a day off.
“I’d love to be around these guys every day, but we’ve been going now for a while,” Groce said.
The Illini had just finished a stretch in which they had played three games in eight days and made two separate trips to Atlanta and back. Groce and his staff only had one day to prepare the players for Dartmouth.
“The big fella here has been under the weather and has still yet to tell me,” Groce said. Egwu, his head down, just barely cracked a smile. He didn’t let anyone see it for long.
“He just won’t tell me, won’t say anything,” Groce continued. “I really appreciate him and the way he’s handled himself. He’s tried to play through it and he’s probably looking forward to (the day off) more than anybody.”
Egwu and his teammates finally got that day off on Wednesday. But it will be a quick turnaround. On Thursday the Illini will begin preparation for No. 15 Oregon.
Illinois travels to Portland, Ore., to play the undefeated Ducks on Saturday. Oregon, which reached the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA tournament, already has wins over Georgetown and Ole Miss this season.
The game will be played at Portland’s Moda Center, home to the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA, in what is technically considered a neutral-site game. But Groce knows the Ducks will have a distinct home-court advantage, playing a little more than 100 miles from their campus.
“Any time you get to play a team as good as Oregon in a semi-away game, that’s a great opportunity,” Groce said.
Egwu knows it’s not going to be easy to walk out of Portland with a win, but Illinois already made one trip out west and came away with a W over UNLV on Nov. 26.
“There’s a lot maturity that’s involved in it,” Egwu said. “We’ve got to understand that we have to be prepared for this team just like any other team we’ve played.”
The Ducks (8-0) are ranked high, but like the Illini (9-1), have benefited from a favorable schedule. Oregon has won all six of its home games. The win over Georgetown was played at a U.S. Army base in South Korea, about as neutral as a court gets. The game against Ole Miss was won on the road in overtime.
As of Wednesday, the Ducks’ 91.4 points per game ranked second in the country and their .529 field goal percentage was good enough for fifth in the nation. Oregon features six players averaging double-figure points, led by junior guard Joseph Young’s 20.2 points per game. The Ducks are also the 10th best 3-point shooting team in the nation, knocking down long-range shots at a 43.8 percent clip.
If nothing else, Oregon can put the ball in the basket. The Ducks will test the Illinois defense more than any team it has faced.
“We’re going to have to play better than we did (Tuesday),” Groce said. “Our guys know that. We have to have two really good days of practice in preparation.”
Sean can be reached at email@example.com and @sean_hammond.