CHAMPAIGN — John Groce has a meticulous plan to prepare his University of Illinois basketball newcomers for their first road game of the season.
He has taken them through the formalities of traveling step by step — how to dress, how to act on a flight, how to eat, how to get proper sleep.
“Everything,” the Illini coach said Monday before his 5-0 team held a final practice in Champaign before jetting off to Las Vegas, where Illinois meets Nevada-Las Vegas today at 9:45 p.m. (Central).
“We expect the veterans to lead by example and show the freshmen how we travel. All of that becomes really important when you’re trying to gain an edge or an advantage at this level.”
While Groce believes his five freshmen will do a good job paying attention to the travel details, preparing for UNLV’s basketball team is a separate matter.
Although just 2-2, UNLV has shown some tendencies that have grabbed Groce’s attention.
“You don’t see a stat sheet very often with two guys averaging in double figures in rebounding,” Groce noted. “Getting 16 rebounds a game by the Smith kid is just ridiculous.”
Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 forward, is averaging 14.3 points and 16.3 rebounds. And Khem Birch, a 6-9 junior, is averaging 11.3 rebounds.
“How we rebound the ball will be a big indicator of who comes out on top,” Groce said.
“Our transition defense is another area of concern for me. They have a center who can get the defensive rebound and then lead the fast break with the dribble. Most of the time that guy just outlets to guards, but they have a big man who can lead their break and that makes them even faster.”
UNLV has defeated Portland and Omaha while losing to California-Santa Barbara and Arizona State. From the field, UNLV is shooting 41.2 percent. And from the free throw line the Runnin’ Rebels are making a dreadful 50.5 percent.
“Our identity after four games is that we’re a team that plays hard and does a good job on the boards and needs to become more efficient on the offensive end,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We have a good basketball team. We’re going to shore things up and be ready for Illinois.”
UNLV hasn’t played since last Tuesday, when it lost 86-80 to Arizona State. Groce said Illinois can’t afford to assume UNLV’s shooting woes will continue.
“What I see is a team that is ridiculously athletic, ridiculously talented, terrific in transition and great on the glass,” Groce said. “Their percentages are not what they should be but they were picked second in the Mountain West for a reason.”
Groce also will find out how UNLV approaches Illinois’ hot hand, Jon Ekey. In each of the last two games, the transfer from Illinois State has made five 3-pointers and scored 19 points.