Men’s basketball squares off in Las Vegas


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Leron Black rises up to shoot a floater during a game against North Carolina Central at State Farm Center on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Illinois won 86-73.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

The Illini face tough competition tonight after narrowly escaping a home upset Wednesday against Austin Peay.

It’s the second-consecutive UNLV home game on the Las Vegas strip, and it’s the seventh game all-time for the program at MGM Resorts since it began hosting basketball games in 2013. MGM Grand Garden Arena is the host location for the Rebels due to the National Finals Rodeo being held at Thomas & Mack Center.

Illinois (7-3, Big Ten 0-2) leads the all-time series 4-1, and in the last meeting in 2013, it defeated UNLV (7-2) on a contested layup from Rayvonte Rice to put Illinois ahead 61-59 with 27 seconds left.

UNLV ranks second in the nation in rebounds per game (46.4), third in assists per game (20.3) and sixth in scoring per game (91.8).

Freshman Brandon Mccoy leads the Rebels. The seven-foot Chicago-native, who is a former McDonald’s All-American, ranks in the top-10 in the nation in rebounding (11.2 rebounds per game), alongside teammate Shakur Juiston (11.9 rebounds per game).

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“His sidekick at the power forward spot, Juiston, is an elite rebounder,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever seen a team that has two guys put up those kind of numbers on the glass.”

McCoy is also averaging 20 points per game, and there are five others on the team averaging double-digits, including last year’s team leading-scorer, senior guard Jovan Mooring. McCoy has recorded six double-doubles through nine games this season, and Juiston is not far behind with five of his own.

Underwood said that the Illini need “great perimeter defense” to counter their opposition’s inside-presence, which features “a guy that’s a potential lottery-pick” in McCoy.

“We can’t give him things easy because our guards are getting beat, forcing rotation (and) forcing our bigs to support and help because his athleticism and length at the rim becomes a problem, and it opens (the floor) up for lobs and things,” Underwood said. “We can’t give him easy baskets on the offensive glass.”

The Illinois frontcourt is spearheaded by junior forward Leron Black, who leads the team in scoring with 14.8 points per game. Black has scored in double-figures for a career-high eight consecutive games.

Both teams look to run in transition, but Illinois will have to bring a slightly different style of play against UNLV, according to Underwood.

“They like to play similar to us, they play with tempo, so our transition defense needs to be very good,” Underwood said. “We can’t let it be a free-flow type game, we have to muck it up a little bit; they scare you on the glass and at the point with their speed and ability to be great in transition.”

The Illini have yet to have trouble “mucking” up play this season, and they’re coming off a game in which they forced a season-high 25 turnovers.

On the defensive end, Illinois ranks 12th nationally in turnover rate, and it has forced turnovers on just over 25-percent of its opponent’s possessions so far this season.

Illinois tips off against UNLV at 11 p.m. CT. on ESPN2.