Illini basketball front court to be tested against Austin Peay

The Illinois men’s basketball team will be tested again this weekend.

Unlike the first two games of the season that head coach John Groce said were dominated by strong guard play from the opposition, Illinois’ next opponent, Austin Peay, will test the Illini front court.

“They really try to throw the ball inside,” Groce said. “They’re a team that’s going to require you to play good post defense without fouling. They’re great on the glass.”

While the Governors (1-2) have been good on the glass so far this season, grabbing 107 boards over their first three games, the Illini (2-0) haven’t rebounded as well in the early going.

Illinois was outrebounded 41-34 in the team’s first game of the season against Georgia Southern. The Illini bounced back and snagged 50 rebounds in a blow out win over Coppin State.

“Until Sunday, against Coppin State, we had not been as good as we needed to be on the glass,” Groce said. “We’re going to be tested in the paint, which I think is good for our team.”

Part of Illinois’ slow start on the glass can be attributed to 6-foot-11 center Nnanna Egwu, who has three rebounds through the team’s first two games. While it may look to some as if Egwu is underperforming on the glass, Groce said he isn’t worried about Egwu’s production.

“He’s been better on the offensive glass than the defensive glass,” Groce said. “The greatest thing for him though is I don’t want to tell him to go snatch a bunch of them because he’s so great at blocking out. So obviously there’s a balance there.”

To Groce, Illinois’ success against Austin Peay is predicated on shutting down the Governors’ two options in the paint. Forwards Chris Horton and Chris Freeman, who Groce called freakishly athletic, lead Austin Peay on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

“It’s like pogo stick athleticism,” Groce said. “Those guys are so athletic and they play with motor.”

Horton has been a defensive stopper for the Governors, recording 10 blocks against Berea and 18 blocks through the team’s first three games. Freeman has been equally effective on the offensive end for Austin Peay: He has led the Governors in points in two of their three games.

Egwu has a height advantage and comparable athleticism to the Governors’ frontcourt, but Illinois’ other big men, including Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan, will face a bigger test from the Governor’s front court.

“It will be a good test for all those guys that play up front for us,” Groce said.

While the on-court test for the Illini will come from Austin Peay’s bigs, the equally important off-court test will be whether or not Illinois is mentally ready to play come game time. The Illini didn’t seem to be completely into Friday’s game against Georgia Southern, but rebounded well against Coppin State and, according to Groce, showed mental improvements in practice this week.

“The last two days we practiced well,” Groce said. “But each day’s different and each game is different, and I’m trying to explain that to them. Whether it’s offensively or defensively, you have to play the game that’s in front of you possession by possession, one thing at a time.” 

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.