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Current Illini have some Flyin’ Illini in them, but it’s on defense

The 1989 Illinois Final Four team with coach Lou HensNick Anders(right) Kenny Battle will be honored Saturday. | AP

The 1989 Illinois Final Four team, with coach Lou Henson, Nick Anderson (right) and Kenny Battle, will be honored Saturday. | AP

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Updated: February 5, 2014 6:06AM

Talk about a good way to warm up a wintry weekend.

John Groce’s team was looking forward to meeting the 1989 Flyin’ Illini at a dinner Friday night. The current Illini then hoped to put on a show Saturday for their celebrated predecessors against Penn State.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to be around those guys who paved the way for us,” junior guard Tracy Abrams said.

Even Groce sounded like an excited kid when asked his favorite memories of Lou Henson’s Final Four squad, which was led by Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle.

“The dunks are what comes to mind,” Groce said. “You know why? I’m jealous of a good dunk. Because I’ve never dunked in my life, [except] on a seven-foot hoop at home with [son] Conner.”

The 25th anniversary festivities should help the Illini, fresh off an overtime victory over Indiana in their Big Ten opener, get pumped to deliver a solid effort against the Nittany Lions.

“They are a load on offense,” Groce said. “They are a tough cover. It’s going to be a good challenge for us, especially on the defensive end.’’

Illinois is just 5-6 against Penn State the last five years, another reason to be wary of a pesky Big Ten tail-ender.

“It’s not a distraction,” Groce said of the reunion, which includes a halftime ceremony. “It should be inspirational. They played the game hard. They were entertaining. They’re a big part of our tradition. We’re excited that they’re here.’’

When it comes to offense, Penn State, which is averaging 79.9 points per game, might have more in common with the Flyin’ Illini, who scored 100 points eight times, than the current Illini (72.1).

But the 1989 Illini also were strong defenders under Henson, with Stephen Bardo being named Big Ten defensive player of the year. Like Henson, Groce preaches defense first, a concept the Illini have embraced.

They are third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 62 points per game, behind Ohio State (55.1) and Wisconsin (59.8). If the Illini are going to be successful, they know they’ll need to come up with more efforts like the defensive lockdown they mustered at the end of the Indiana game.

Still, while Groce demands defense, he appreciates offense, as he made clear in recalling the ’89 team.

“Some of Battle’s dunks were unbelievable,” Groce said, “and how skilled Nick was. I remember that team vividly because of how entertaining they were. They were fun to watch. I don’t know if we’re as fun to watch, but our guys are fun to watch. Our guys compete. They play hard. They battle.’’

And they’ll hear some good stories this weekend before they continue their efforts to create their own memories.

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