CHAMPAIGN – At this point in the season, UNLV’s greatest strength also happens to be one of Illinois’ better areas as well.
Both teams enter tonight’s matchup ranked in the top 15 nationally in rebounding.
“Something’s got to give,” Illini head coach John Groce said.
Statistically speaking, the Runnin’ Rebels (2-2) are slightly better than the Illini on the glass, averaging 46.2 boards per game.
Junior forward Roscoe Smith is pulling over 16 rebounds per, joined in double figures by classmate Khem Birch with 11.3.
UNLV’s rebounding ability is directly linked to it’s next best area – transition offense. The Rebels routinely have five players on the floor that can lead the break, a quality that jumped out to Groce when he watched film to prepare.
“We’re really going to be challenged at the highest level we’ve been challenged thus far this season in those two areas,” Groce said of rebounding and the transition game.
The Illini come in as UNLV's equal on the glass. They've outrebounded four of five opponents by double digits and rank second among Big Ten teams with a +14.6 rebounding margin.
The offensive glass is where Illini has made a name for itself. Avergaing 17 offensive rebounds a game, Illinois is scoring nearly 15 second chance points a game.
Joe Bertrand (7.4), Jon Ekey (7.2) and Nnanna Egwu (7.2) are each averaging over seven boards.
Ekey said the team has spent the past several days preparing for the toughest rebounding test to date.
“That’s what coach has been telling us now for a couple days, just how good a rebounding team that they are,” he said. “You know, that’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on too, so that it will be good to go out there, make sure we work as a team to hit and go get. That should be good.”
The Rebels were picked preseason No. 2 in the Mountain West conference, but have stumbled early in the season. Losses to UC Santa Barbara and Arizona State though haven’t changed Groce’s opinion of the type of challenge UNLV poses.
“I think it’s a step we need to take, playing against a really talented team in UNLV and you know it will be a good challenge for us as we continue to move forward,” Groce said. “I think it’s going to give us an opportunity to grow and continue to get better. That’s what we want to be about.”