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Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice

Illinois forward/center Nnanna Egwu (32) and guard Rayvonte Rice celebrate the Illini's win on Wednesday.

Little by little – and too late to save a reasonable run at an NCAA Tournament berth – the Illini basketball team is getting better.

Better defensively, to be sure.

Better offensively with the presence of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill in the starting lineup and with Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand coming off the bench.

Better as center Nnanna Egwu emerges as a defensive star.

It might surprise some fans, but coach John Groce said he believes this is a better Illini basketball now – on Feb. 26 shortly after beating Nebraska 60-49 – than it was back on Dec. 21 when it defeated Missouri and it seemed the season was still so full of hope.

But Groce quickly adds, “We should be better. This is February. That was (December).”

What we’ve come to understand is that Illinois was not then nor will it be this season a talented offensive team. Despite beating the hottest team in the Big Ten by 11 points Wednesday, Illinois still shot 37.3 percent overall.

But before Groce could make the lineup change that inserted two freshmen, he had to be convinced they were ready to take on the defensive responsibilities and that has happened. Illinois had 11 steals Wednesday and forced 12 of Nebraska’s 15 turnovers in the second half. Nunn and Hill now “get it” defensively.

If you combine heads-up defense with all-out hustle, you get a team capable of winning basketball games even when it can’t threaten the 40 percent mark in field goal shooting.

Nunn led the way with 13 points despite taking just six shots. He was 3-for-4 from 3-point distance.

The other freshman starter, Hill, added 10 points and made both of his 3s.

And even though Ray Rice was just 3-for-13 shooting, he fought for 10 points and fought even harder for nine rebounds. Rice also had four of those steals. There’s nothing wrong with Ray Rice’s effort.

Tracy Abrams couldn’t make a shot. He was 0-for-7. But he had five assists and zero turnovers in 34 minutes.

And for the first time since Groce made the lineup change, both Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand contributed in a significant way. Bertrand started strong with 6 points early. And Ekey was extremely active and finished with eight points and six rebounds.

“They won the game by making all the hustle plays,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

The poster play would therefore be Ekey’s leaping save of a ball that was going out of bounds, a hustle play that landed him in the front row, nearly on top of a cheerleader, and brought the State Farm Center crowd flying out of its seats.

Illinois’ defense hounded Terran Petteway, the leading scorer in the Big Ten, into 5-for-18 shooting. And Shavon Shields, who had 33 points in Illinois’ Feb. 12 loss at Nebraska, was limited to seven.

So what does it mean?

The goal now is to get into continue showing improvement and get into some kind of post-season tournament.

I normally don’t root for things like the NIT or CBI. But in this case, I see the value in it.

The value comes in building for the future, in exposing freshmen to any kind of post-season experience. And once there, who knows? Maybe win a few games.

Quite obviously, that can’t be the routine goal of this program. Nor will it be.

But for this season, it’s a modest and necessary goal.

Wednesday’s victory made sure Illinois will finish with at least a .500 mark. At 16-12, there are three regular season games to go against three of the best teams in the league (Saturday at Michigan State, March 4 at home vs. Michigan and March 8 at Iowa), plus the Big Ten Tournament.

And by the way, it came as no surprise Wednesday when Chicago St. Rita shooting guard Charles Matthews said he will attend Kentucky.

Matthews, the No. 12 player in the Class of 2015, picked Kentucky over Illinois, Kansas, Michigan State and Marquette.

Matthews made it sound as though Illinois would have been his second choice, something Illinois is used to hearing.

Chicago Simeon wing player, D.J. Williams, who has already committed to Illinois in the same recruiting class, attended Matthews announcement on Wednesday.

“That was really tough,” Matthews told ESPN.com. “Coach [John] Groce and his staff did an incredible job of recruiting me. Coach Groce is in the rebuilding stage of that program. Me being close to D.J., that was hard. At the end of the day, I knew Kentucky was better for me. I had to do what was best for me.”

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