Illinois men’s basketball hosts Chicago State

By Johnathan Hettinger

After Illinois defeated Jacksonville State 86-62 on Nov. 10, head coach John Groce wasn’t happy.

His team had just defeated an inferior opponent, but what stood out to him was the rebounding margin. The smaller, Ohio Valley opponent had grabbed 44 rebounds to Illinois’ 37, including 19 on the offensive glass.

It didn’t make sense.

He had known since the summer that his team had a knack for rebounding, but their effort wasn’t there in the game, especially when point guards Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate shared the floor.

Following the game, he told the team’s top ballhandlers they needed to grab rebounds if they wanted to play together.

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They responded. In the last two games, Abrams has grabbed 13 rebounds, while Tate has added four, and their shared time on the court will be especially helpful against Chicago State’s pressure defense on Friday at State Farm Center.

Chicago State has forced 92 turnovers through its first five games, and having an extra ball handler will be helpful for the Illini, who haven’t seen a pressure defense so far this season.

“You want to have ball handlers on the floor in those situations,” Groce said. “When they’re together, the biggest thing is, for us, we’ve got two playmaking guards, two guys that handle the basketball.”

Tate leads the Big Ten with a 5.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Abrams has two years of experience as a starting point guard.

In addition to a tight defense, Chicago State plays a fast-paced offense, different than what Illinois has seen this season.

“They’re an up-tempo team, which is good. That’s the way we like to play,” senior Joseph Bertrand said.

Bertrand said Chicago State often shoots as quickly as it can, leading to lots of shots, but also lots of opportunities for rebounds, which Illinois has been excelling at since Jacksonville State.

On the season, Illinois has a positive 13.5 rebounding margin and averages 17.8 rebounds per game. Junior Nnanna Egwu and senior Jon Ekey have led the charge on the glass, averaging seven rebounds apiece.

Groce said that, so far, Egwu and Ekey have done a good job figuring out how to play defense and grab rebounds without fouling.

“Fouling negates hustle and we have to find ways to play hard without fouling,” he said.

He’s known since before the season that his team has the ability to rebound, as long as it goes hard on every possession, even against inferior opponents.

“We’ve got a gift there and continuing to emphasize that (is crucial),” Groce said. “You have to go every time.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.