Attacking the Glass

Illinois is pulling down offensive rebounds at a dominating rate.

CHAMPAIGN – Joe Bertrand emerged from the tunnel prior to Thursday's basketball practice wearing perfectly white shoes and a familiar No. 40 James Augustine jersey.

The player with the most rebounds in practice gets the honor of wearing the jersey of the schools all-time rebounds leader the next day.

With a roster currently boasting six players averaging four or more rebounds a game, the battle for No. 40 must be fierce. Bertrand, pulling over seven boards per, said a good rebounder must have a knack for the bounce of the ball, a feel for how the type of shot taken influences the next action taken.

"If it's a long shot most of the time it's coming off the other side," the senior guard said. "Just knowing stuff like that. Positioning plays a real big part as well."

The Illini (4-0) have been particularly adept rebounding on the offensive end of the court, averaging nearly 18 a game thanks to contributions from Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey. Wearing Augustine's jersey means something to the players. So does crashing the offensive glass.

"Me and Joe kind of try to out-do each other," Rice said. "We try to out-rebound each other everyday. I can't leave Jon out of it either."

It's true that the competition encountered so far isn't as good as what lies ahead. But Illinois is second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin at plus-13.5, perhaps a surprising disparity through only four games.

Ekey says the lack of a traditional looking big man could be throwing teams off. Nnanna Egwu (6-foot-11, 250-pounds) is a forward that plays center and Ekey (6-foot-7) and Bertrand (6-6), like Egwu, impress more with their length than size.

"Maybe we catch them a little bit off guard because of that," Ekey said.

Don't count Coach John Groce as one of the surprised.

"I kind of saw it this summer when you looked at our personnel and what guys have natural gifts in that area," he said. "I thought we could be very good on the glass."

Groce saw the potential. He then set a plan into action. He told the team every day that rebounding was going to be important.

"That's something that has been engrained in our heads since day one," Rice said.

Said Groce: "The key honestly has been consistently going and doing that all the time. Right now we have some guys that do that pretty well. We've got to continue to do that. It's not an automatic. It takes great effort and a great disposition to be a good offensive rebounder."

To be considered an elite offensive rebounder in the Big Ten, by Groce's standard, a player has to average a minimum of three a game. Bertrand, Ekey and Egwu are above the mark. One more offensive board would put Rice in that company, too.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but to get those three and average that you've got to go every time," Groce said. "That takes great discipline and great effort."

Motivation to give the necessary effort is easy to muster up, according to Rice.

"You know you're giving your team a whole new possession, giving your team an extra chance to score," he said. "You get a lot of those it gives you more chances to get points."

It's true. The Illini are scoring nearly 15 points a game thanks to second chance opportunities.

"The second shot is way more likely to go in than the first shot," Bertrand said.

More serious contenders in UNLV, Georgia Tech and Oregon are on the schedule's horizon. And the grind of the Big Ten awaits, too. Groce has repeatedly said that for goals to be reached his team must play by committee, defend and rebound.

Continuing to own the glass at the current rate would be a tremendous boost to NCAA Tournament chances.

"We've got to continue to do that moving forward," Groce said.

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