The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Sports

January 2, 2013

Second season begins for Illinois

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Illinois coach John Groce was pleased his team’s performance in season No. 1.

The Fighting Illini completed the non-conference portion of their year with 13 victories in 14 games and the team is rated No. 11 in the latest Associated Press poll.

But, the first-year coach knows that none of that will matter starting tonight as Illinois opens Big Ten Conference play with a 8:30 p.m. (Eastern), and 7:30 p.m. (Central) contest in West Lafayette, Ind. against the Purdue Boilermakers.

“We learned a lot about our team,’’ Groce said. “We finished up season 1, now we are headed into season 2.

“We are further along in some areas, in other areas we have to get better.’’

In an effort to get his team ready for the 18-game league slate, Groce gave Illinois (13-1) a day off on Sunday coming off a 81-79 win over Auburn on Saturday in Chicago.

“I wanted to get our minds and bodies ready for conference season,’’ he said. “We had a great practice on Monday. Guys were really locked in. I think they are really excited about season No. 2 starting (tonight).’’

But as the previous two games, against Missouri and Auburn, have pointed out, the biggest area of concern for Illinois is rebounding.

The Illini have been outrebounded 97-66 in games against the Missouri Tigers and the Auburn Tigers.

“It has to be a mindset where it’s important to our guys,’’ Groce said. “We have to do it a bit differently than some teams, because some nights we might not have the girth of some other teams.

“We have to go get it as a group of five — we have to get the ball.’’

That’s been a role for Illinois guards as Brandon Paul (5.1), D.J. Richardson (4.4) and Joseph Bertrand (4.3) lead the team in rebounding.

And while rebounding is a concern for the Illini, it is an area of strength of the Boilermakers (6-6).

Purdue is outrebounding its opponents by 8.6 per game, and the Boilermakers rank second in the Big Ten with 14.4 offensive rebounds per game.

“First thing is their ability to rebound the basketball,’’ said Groce, when breaking down Purdue. “This is the third team in a row that we’ve played that statistically, nationally, is among the best at rebounding the ball.

“We have to find a better answer there, do it collectively as a group at a higher level.’’

Purdue 7-foot freshman center A.J. Hammons is averaging 5.8 rebounds per game to go along with 10.0 points per game.

And going along with the Boilermakers’ ability to rebound is their toughness.

“Whenever you play them, you have to be tough, physically, and you’ve got to be tough mentally,’’ Groce said.

The guy that best exemplifies Purdue’s toughness, according to Groce, is senior guard D.J. Byrd from Crawfordsville, Ind.

“D.J. Byrd is the X factor,’’ Groce said. “He is the guy that brings that Purdue toughness to the table. He is the head of the snake, if you will.

“I really respect and appreciate watching him play on film. He plays the game the right way.’’

The leading scorer for the Boilermakers is junior guard Terone Johnson, who scored 21 points and dished out nine assists in Purdue’s two wins a year ago over Illinois.

“Terone Johnson is a guy that can drive and shoot the ball,’’ Groce said. “He does both those things well. He is capable of big nights.’’

After starting the year with an incredible shooting percentage behind the 3-point arc, Illinois, which is third in the NCAA with 9.4 3-pointers per game, has made just 24-of-93 (25.8 percent) in its last four games.

But during that same stretch, the Illini are 68-of-99 (68.7 percent) at the free-throw line.

“I do think the benefit of that, is that we’ve driven the ball,’’ Groce said. “We had Brandon and Tracy (Abrams) get high number of free throw attempts in several games here lately. That helps our offense.’’

Abrams, the Big Ten Player of the Week, is coming off a career-best 27 points and eight rebounds in Illinois’ win over Auburn.

The Illini have won four straight Big Ten openers and they are 66-41 all-time in first games of league play.

While the Boilermakers are 4-3 in conference openers under coach Matt Painter, winning the last three.

Tonight’s game can be seen on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.

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