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Oregon likely to help Illini identify itself by its ‘D’

Forward JEkey (left) knows Illinois has play signature card — stingy defense — if it’s going contahot-shooting No. 15 OregSaturday.

Forward Jon Ekey (left) knows Illinois has to play a signature card — stingy defense — if it’s going to contain hot-shooting No. 15 Oregon on Saturday. | Rick Danzl/AP

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Updated: January 15, 2014 6:18AM



Does Illinois have a decent shot to win Saturday night against 15th-ranked Oregon in Portland? Sure. The Illini are 9-1. Like the 8-0 Ducks, they were an NCAA tournament team last season. Athletically speaking, this is no mismatch.

What it is, though, is a test — and a stern one at that — of the Illini’s identity.

‘‘Defensively, we’ve got to bring our A-game,’’ forward Jon Ekey said. ‘‘They can score the ball. They’re fast. They’ve got a lot of talent there.’’

All true. But Ekey really hit the nail on the head when he added, ‘‘It’ll be good to go out there and see exactly where we are.’’

It’s easy to note some of the similarities between these teams. Both are led in scoring by junior shooting guards who are killing it in their first seasons of action after transferring — Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (17.9 points per game), formerly of Drake, and Oregon’s Joseph Young (20.1), who was a standout at Houston.

Both have graduate transfers at forward — Ekey and the Ducks’ Mike Moser — who are playing vital roles in the success of their teams.

Certainly, both the Illini and the Ducks are richer in guards and wing players than in big men.

But what’s most striking about this matchup is how fundamentally different the teams are. The Ducks rank fifth in the nation at 91.4 points per game. They can stroke it, too: 52.9 percent from the field, also fifth-best nationally. Given how heavily they rely on the jump shot, those rankings probably don’t do the Ducks justice.

‘‘They are a great shooting team,’’ Illini coach John Groce said.

A team that has hit triple digits three times already — most recently in its last outing, a 115-105 overtime victory at Mississippi — definitely isn’t searching for an identity.

That makes this the perfect time for the Illini to wrap their arms around their own identity. Offensively, they’re going to have their ups and downs throughout the season. Defensively, it’s not a reach to say they can be great.

‘‘I’ve learned that we’ve got a great collective pride within our team,’’ Groce said.

No opponent has put 70 on the Illini yet. They’re allowing 59.3 points per game, ninth-best in the land. Opponents are shooting under 38 percent from the field overall.

Those numbers aren’t as sexy as Oregon’s, but they’re seriously impressive just the same.

Groce told his players this game is about ‘‘imposing [their] will.’’ He asked them: ‘‘Who’s going to have the determination and toughness to impose what they want to do?’’

It’s a concept the Illini had better embrace before their toughest non-conference game of the season. If they do that, they’ve got a shot.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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