Valparaiso’s size poses big challenge for Illini

John Groce was not happy with his team’s rebounding effort after Sunday’s win over Jacksonville State, and his frontcourt is going to have step up the physicality if he wants to see improved numbers against Valparaiso on Wednesday. 

The Illinois basketball team will play Valparaiso at 6:30 p.m. at State Farm Center on Wednesday in the third contest of the season for both teams.

“Watching the film, I thought we did some good things, but I also thought we had some hiccups,” Groce said of Sunday’s game. “Rebounding was an issue. (Valparaiso’s) size also poses a challenge. They’ll be the biggest team we’ve played against thus far.”

The Crusaders feature three players at 6-foot-10 or taller who each see about equal playing time. The 7-foot, 270-pound Moussa Gueye leads Valparaiso in size, but it’s 6-foot-10 Vashil Fernandez who leads the team in rebounding.

“They’re real big and tall,” Illini center Nnanna Egwu said. “Just a lot of weight. It’s going to take a toll.”

Egwu has looked good in Illinois’ first two games of the 2013-14 season. With increased pressure on him to carry the load in the paint, Egwu averaged 10 points and 8.5 rebounds over the first weekend of the season.

There’s no question Egwu and senior forward Jon Ekey will come ready to play. But it will be the play of freshmen forwards Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert that will need closer inspection. Neither of them has been challenged by particularly large front-courts yet this season.

“They’re going to have to put out everything they’ve got trying to defend these guys and also working on offense,” Egwu said. “It’s going to be a big emphasis to make sure we box them out. I think we’re well prepared to do so.”

Valparaiso’s trip to Champaign means a popular former Illini will be back beside the court he used to play on. Roger Powell, Jr. is an assistant coach for Bryce Drew’s Crusaders and was a forward for Illinois from 2001-05. He started all but one game during his junior and senior seasons and was instrumental to Illinois’ run to the national championship game in 2005.

Although sometimes overshadowed by the likes of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, Powell averaged 12 points per game in 2004-05 and was a 1,000-point scorer for the Illini over the course of his career.

Groce said Powell and his family visited Champaign in the summer and that he sees him often when they’re both on the road recruiting.

“We always bump into each other and talk,” Groce said. “Roger has a great appreciation for what Illinois did for him long term. But don’t be mistaken, tomorrow night he’ll be pulling for Valpo.”

Valparaiso also features five players on its roster from the state of Illinois. In all, the Crusaders lost a lot of experience from last year’s team that went to the NCAA Tournament. Whether experienced or not, it’s hard to overlook their size. 

“It’ll be good to see what we’ve been working on lately: Guarding bigger guys — whether we’re giving pounds or inches,” Ekey said. 

“Their size is going to be similar to what we’re going to see down the road,” Groce said. “That’s going to be good for our team.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.