Illini emphasizing rebounding vs. Ohio State

Brandon Paul leads the Illini with 18.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Bradley Leeb/US Presswire

Coach John Groce said Friday the Fighting Illini have to make rebounding more of an emphasis after their last three opponents beat them on the boards, leading to their only two losses this season.

Missouri first brought to light the Illini’s problem by outrebounding them 58-35, including 22-14 on the offensive glass, in an Illinois loss on Dec. 22. The Tigers had 15 second-chance points in the 82-73 win.

Against Auburn on Dec. 29, the Illini were outrebounded 39-31 overall and 14-9 offensively in an 81-79 win. Auburn had 24 second-chance points.

In Wednesday’s game against Purdue, Illinois was outrebounded 45-35 overall and 17-13 offensively in another loss. The Boilermakers had 15 second-chance points in the 68-61 win.

“I think just continue to make it more of an emphasis and getting everybody involved,” Groce said on Friday. “I think we’re a team that has to gang-rebound it. We are. All five guys have to be involved in it.

“I think at times we’ve done a decent job of doing that, and other times as I’ve watched I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at doing that. We got to be more consistent in that area.”

Groce thought if his team played better defense it would lead to better rebounding. He thought his players were having to rotate too often defensively in recent games, putting them in difficult positions to box out.

No. 8 Ohio State (11-2), Saturday’s opponent, could be another team that gives the No. 11 Illini fits on the glass. The Buckeyes are averaging 12.9 offensive rebounds and are led by Deshaun Thomas, who is averaging a team-best 7.0 rebounds to go along with 19.9 points. Senior guard Brandon Paul leads Illinois with a 5.0 rebounds a game.

Groce said Friday he did like the way his team bounced back in practice since Wednesday’s loss and was hopeful for a better outcome in Saturday’s game. Following its only other loss this season, Illinois returned to action with a victory.

“We’ve obviously lost previously, and I like the way we responded in that regard,” Groce said. “We have another opportunity to do that again tomorrow.

“In this league, you play 18 games. We talked about it before Game 1 and when the second season started; they’re coming at you every two or three days, right at you. You don’t have time to celebrate or lick your wounds. You can’t do that. You got to stay above that and focus on the process of getting better every day. I think our guys have done that, and they did that the last couple days as well.”

Saturday’s game will be the first time Groce faces his mentor, Ohio State coach Thad Matta. Groce was an assistant to Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State.

“First and foremost, he’s a friend, he and his family,” Groce said. “He’s done a lot for me professionally and personally. I’ve said this numerous times, I wouldn’t be standing here with this wonderful opportunity to be at the University of Illinois without him.

“Having said that, he’s competitive, I’m competitive. When that ball tips at 1:15 tomorrow, we aren’t going to be thinking a whole lot about that. He’s not either. We’re going to get after it as I’m sure his club will.”