Illinois men’s basketball hits the road vs. UNLV


Illinois’ Jon Ekey (33) goes up for a put-back dunk during the game against Chicago State at State Farm Center, on Friday, Nov. 23, 2013. The Illini won 77-53.

By Johnathan Hettinger

The season only gets tougher from here for the Illinois men’s basketball team.

After starting 5-0, the Illini will leave the friendly confines of State Farm Center for three of its next four games, kicking off the stretch with a trip to Las Vegas to play UNLV on Tuesday.

For a team with seven players in orange and blue for the first time, Illinois’ first road trip will show the new Illini an example of a “business trip.” It will also give the players a chance to bond and the coaches a chance to see where the team is at.

“We’re gonna learn a lot about our team,” Illinois head coach John Groce said.

In addition to the first road trip, the Illini (5-0) will face their toughest test of the young season in the Runnin’ Rebels. Despite high preseason hopes, UNLV sits at 2-2 and has struggled early in the season, with home losses to UC-Santa Barbara and Arizona State, in addition to an exhibition loss to TEAM.

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Illinois head coach John Groce said UNLV could very easily be 4-0, and the team is much better than its record.

“They weren’t picked second preseason in the Mountain West by accident,” Groce said, describing the team as “ridiculously athletic, ridiculously talented, terrific in transition and terrific on the glass.”

Groce spoke especially highly of UNLV’s leading rebounder, Roscoe Smith. Smith, a 6-foot-8 forward, averages 16.0 rebounds per game through four appearances. Smith is a junior who transferred from UConn, where he played his first two seasons. Coming out of high school, he was a four-star, top-40 recruit.

Smith’s fellow frontcourt member is junior Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9 forward. Through four games, Birch is averaging 11.3 rebounds per contest, making the duo one of the top rebounding units in the nation early in the season.

“Coach has been telling for a couple days just how good a rebounding team they are,” senior Jon Ekey said. “That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on, too.”

Smith and Birch will present a tough test for Ekey, a 6-foot-9 forward, and the rest of the Illini frontcourt. Ekey has been one of Illinois’ top rebounders so far, averaging 7.2 boards per game, including 3.6 offensive rebounds. Senior Joseph Bertrand leads the Illini with 7.4 rebounds per game, while junior Nnanna Egwu adds 7.2.

The trio of Ekey, Egwu and Betrand have been especially dominant on the offensive glass, grabbing at least three offensive rebounds apiece, but Birch and Smith should be able to hold their own, as they have been grabbing five apiece. The frontcourt will be the best the Illini have faced, and it will also prepare Illinois for BCS foes looming in the future.

“The next two weeks will really test us,” Groce said.

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