Three to Track: Georgia Tech

A few key notes to track tonight as Illinois takes on Georgia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois has entered the national discussion, winning the Maui Invitational and now ranked No. 22 in both major polls.

The Illini (7-0) look to continue the hot start under first-year coach John Groce, hosting Georgia Tech (4-1) Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Here are a few keys to track in tonight's game...

1. Can the Illini compete on the glass?

Coach John Groce is pretty clear on this subject: "We've got to do a better job, collectively as a group, rebounding the basketball," he said.

With that in mind, a look at the stats tells an interesting story. The Illini's top three rebounders are all perimeter players – D.J. Richardson (5.0 average a game), Joseph Bertrand (4.9) and Brandon Paul (4.4).

Is that troubling, considering starting center Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey, combined, average 7.2 a game? Groce doesn't seem concerned, not yet at least.

"I've been on teams that have had their guards lead them in rebounding because their bigs do such a good job of blocking out," he said. "They get the tough job.

"I'm not as concerned about who leads us in rebounding as I am about our overall defensive rebounding percentage. That's what we're spotlighting. You know, we've had some games where we've done it well. We've had some games where we haven't. We need to be more consistent in that area."

On the heels of that statement enters Georgia Tech, a team that's placed an emphasis on controlling the boards. The Yellow Jackets average over 37 rebounds a game, with four players – Marcus Georges-Hunt, Robert Carter, Jr., Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey – all pulling down five or more a game.

How does Illinois combat this?

2. How do the youngsters respond?

The upperclassmen led Illinois to victory Sunday, with Griffey, Paul, Richardson and Bertrand staying on the floor and contributing every point over the final nine minutes of the game.

That's great, but often times there's a downside to a positive note.

Contrasting the stellar play by the seniors-plus Bertrand, the play of sophomore trio Tracy Abrams, Egwu and Myke Henry left much to be desired, for differing reasons.

Abrams didn't play well, held scoreless and turning the ball over four times. Egwu did his thing defensively, but managed only four points and two rebounds. Groce said he was pleased with Henry's play, but he logged only 12 minutes, relegated to the bench due to Griffey's sustained excellence.

"I think a couple of them are hungry to get back out there and play," Groce said. "They should be if they're competitive in nature, which they are. I know they're excited to get back out and play. We didn't get a lot of great productivity out of those young guys in the game on Sunday, but we wouldn't be in the position we are through seven games without them."

Given the bump in the road, how will these young players react to a down performance?

"It takes everybody. You're only as strong as your weakest link," Groce said. "I thought we had too many weak links on Sunday. Our guys know that, but those guys have played better. I expect them to play better moving forward, and I think they're excited to play tomorrow night."

3. Live or die on the outskirts?

Nearly 31 percent of Illinois' 422 shots this season were from 3-point range. Is that too many? Not if those shots are going in at a clip of 40.6 percent, which is what the Illini are shooting from deep.

The phrase ‘live and die' usually takes on a negative connotation. Most say that putting an inference on the word die. But for right now, Illinois is living – and living well – with guard play and long-range scoring.

The downside of that positive statement is players like Egwu and Sam McLaurin, the two true posts on the team, aren't impacting the scoring column. There will come a time when balance on the offensive end will be needed, but Groce isn't interested in forcing things.

"The way we play offensively, to be honest with you, is we're going to take what they give us. We want our spacing to be really good," he said. "We want to take advantage of the way they're playing us."

Did Illinois take what was given versus Gardner-Webb, a game that saw 43.8 percent shooting from the floor?

"I do not think we did that very well on Sunday. That's my fault," Groce said. "We had the center open in the zone in the center too much and we didn't get it in there enough. That's not the players' fault. That's my fault. We've got to get that done. Nnanna made the jump hook when the guy was behind his back, and I think Nnanna is going to continue to get better and better with his back to the basket. We need to sprinkle that in."

So Groce notes that inside-scoring is still important, regardless of what's flowing from the perimeter. Is Wednesday's game against Georgia Tech – with a starting frontline that goes 6-foot-11 (Miller), 6-8 (Carter) and two reserves listed at 6-8 (Royal, Holsey) – the time for increased emphasis in the paint? Maybe not.

"We're going to take what they give us. That's the beauty of how we play," Groce said. "They want to lock on shooters, we do need to dribble drive the ball. They want to help, we need to be able to shoot the ball. They want to play things a certain way, we need to be able to take advantage of that. We're kind of built that way."

Of course, players like Paul love the green light. He's not worried at all about the lack of post scoring.

"I think it's working for us right now," he said. "We obviously put a lot of work in the offseason. We didn't shoot all those shots on the gun to not come and shoot in here. I definitely think we need to get to the basket more, get fouled more, myself included, but I think that will start coming when teams start locking down on our 3s. We've got guys that are athletic and can get to the basket."

Until the Illini struggle shooting or a team puts a distinct game plan together to stop the 3s, expect the guards and stretch forwards like Griffey to continue to carry the load.

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