CHAMPAIGN — One day after being out-toughed in a loss at Purdue, University of Illinois basketball coach John Groce put his players through a gauntlet of high-intensity rebounding drills.
“Yesterday’s practice was not for the meek and timid,” Groce said with a hoarse voice Friday, admitting he had turned up his own volume to underscore the urgency. “It was a physical practice. It was tough.”
With memories still fresh of failing to block out on a key missed free throw late in the Purdue game, Groce rolled out a succession of drills designed to make players fight for missed shots.
“One is called ‘Monarch Rebounding,’” said Tyler Griffey, who managed just one rebound in 26 minutes against the Boilermakers. “It’s four-on-four. You get two points for an offensive rebound, one for a defensive rebound and when you get an offensive rebound you play the possession out.
“We also did 15 straight minutes of free throw blockouts with a cup on the rim, so every shot is a miss and there’s a fight for the rebound on every play. We do another one called drop and smash. The bottom line is that blocking out isn’t enough anymore. You have to go get the ball.”
There were welts and bruises aplenty in Thursday’s practice, all of which was designed to stress the importance of improved rebounding in preparation for Saturday’s game against 8th-ranked Ohio State.
No. 11 Illinois has been outrebounded 142-101 the last three games, two of which have been losses. So Groce knows being more tenacious on the glass is a priority against a Buckeye team whose only losses have been to No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Kansas.
Groce said lapses on defense have contributed to the rebounding difficulties and that’s a concern against an Ohio State team led by the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas, and one of the country’s best all-around point guards, Aaron Craft.
“The better we guard the basketball and keep the ball in front of us, the easier it is to block out,” Groce said. “If someone drives the ball at the basket and I go over to help and the shot goes up, I just left my guy. Rotations have something to do with it.”
Brandon Paul, whose 43-point outburst helped Illinois upset fifth-ranked Ohio State 79-74 last year at the Assembly Hall, said extra effort is needed to keep up with the Buckeyes on the glass.
“It’s a matter of will,” Paul said. “We have to want it more.”
Groce coached alongside the Buckeyes’ Thad Matta for eight years, four at Ohio State, and they’re close friends who share family stories and have turned to each other for advice.
“The first time I met him I was a high school player,” Groce recalled. “My coach was Todd Lickliter, who had coached Thad at Butler. I met him in 1987-88 when I was a player at Danville (Ind.) High School.
“First and foremost, he’s a friend. He’s done a lot for me personally and professionally. I wouldn’t be standing here with this wonderful opportunity at the University of Illinois without him. That said, we’re competitive and we’re going to get after it.”
Ohio State at Illinois
Time: 1:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WJBC-FM (93.7)