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Illinois basketball prepared to tip off Big Ten season

Illinois’ NnannEgwu (right) is capable averaging more than eight points 5.4 rebounds he is putting up this season. | AP

Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu (right) is capable of averaging more than the eight points and 5.4 rebounds he is putting up this season. | AP

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Though Illinois (11-2) is unranked, it enters Big Ten play with a lofty RPI of 12. The top 16:

1. Syracuse

2. UMass

3. Wisconsin

4. Iowa State

5. Villanova

6. Kansas

7. Okla. State

8. Colorado

9. Ohio State

10. Oregon

11. Arizona

12. Illinois

13. Wichita State

14. Baylor

15. Pittsburgh

16. Missouri

Updated: December 31, 2013 12:17AM

Illinois coach John Groce refers to the Big Ten portion of the schedule as Season 2, and it’s no joke.

‘‘The toughness it requires, with 18 games in two months, you can’t get too high or low in this league,’’ Groce said Monday, a little more than 24 hours before the Illini’s conference opener against Indiana in Champaign.

Even for the better teams, maintaining focus and a high level of execution is a constant challenge.

‘‘You’ve got to will your way to doing that game in, game out,’’ Groce said.

If there’s one thing Groce seems to be particularly adept at, it’s motivating his team to play hard. Illinois (11-2) has its imperfections, but the appropriate intensity nearly always is there. The nonconference victories against Missouri and at UNLV required it. The lone losses at Georgia Tech and at Oregon occurred in spite of it.

Through 13 games — or Season 1, in Groce’s parlance — the Illini coaching staff has performed very well, molding a roster that looks almost nothing like the one that reached the NCAA tournament last season. With a strong start in Big Ten play, Groce’s second Illinois team might lock itself into the Top 25 for weeks to come.

Groce and his staff have coached up veterans Tracy Abrams and Joe Bertrand, who are having their best seasons, and unleashed a scoring beast in newcomer Rayvonte Rice, a junior guard who transferred from Drake. A talented, promise-filled group of five freshmen are making an impact.

‘‘I like the progress that we’re making,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I really applauded the guys for their toughness and their grit throughout the nonconference schedule.’’

But Season 2 will be so much harder.

What must the Illini do to compete against the Big Ten powerhouses and get back to the NCAA tournament? There will be twists, turns and unforeseeable obstacles along the way, but at least a few things absolutely must happen:

1. Junior center Nnanna Egwu has to figure out how to make more of an impact. The 6-11, 250-pounder from St. Ignatius is fifth on the team in scoring (8.0) and third in rebounding (5.4) — and definitely capable of more in both areas. With his skill level, he should be held to a higher standard.

If only Egwu would be more assertive offensively, his scoring and rebounding numbers would rise. His inclination seems to be to fall away from the basket on nearly every shot, which is ridiculous given his size. In Big Ten play, though, what choice will he have?

2. Bertrand can’t allow himself to get lost in Rice’s and Abrams’ shadows. Illinois fans long have thought him to be inconsistent. Some critics have called him an underachiever. The truth is, Bertrand has more Robin than Batman in his blood, and that’s OK. He just can’t be too deferential.

Bertrand has limitations. For example, his shaky ballhandling makes it difficult at times for him to create his own shot. His athleticism, though, screams for consistent production.

3. Freshmen Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and especially Malcolm Hill have to step it up. Tate’s impact has waned a bit of late. Nunn’s role is expanding, but the Illini will need all three to log heavy minutes in Big Ten play. Freshman center Maverick Morgan will stay in the rotation, too. Hill has the most Big Ten-ready talent of the four, though, and he barely has played in the last few games.

‘‘He’s going to be good,’’ Groce said. ‘‘It’s a matter of when, not if, with Malcolm.’’

Nothing is that easy, though, when the conference grind comes.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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