hanes stedman polo Groce seeks more offense through bigs

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CHAMPAIGN Illinois basketball’s first offensive possession of last Sunday’s exhibition game against Washington University of St. Louis was a sneak preview of the Illini’s intention for this season.

After forcing a Bears turnover, Tracy Abrams brought the ball up the court before passing to Malcolm Hill on the wing. Hill immediately looked to the right block for Maverick Morgan.

Illinois looked to its bigs all game. Enough for coach John Groce, who was kept apprised of the paint touches by one of the managers in the game, before the Illini host Lewis University at 7 tonight at State Farm Center in their final exhibition game.

“Never enough,” Groce said. “We want more. Obviously, we have some guys that are gifted down there. Two of the guys who are gifted in addition to the four we played were sitting over there in street clothes. We’ve got about five or six guys that can really do some things down there, so we want to get the ball to them in areas where they can do something with it productive for our team.”

Illinois has some waiting to do before having its full post rotation available. Leron Black returns from suspension Nov. 21 against Winthrop. Kipper Nichols, who has been working with the post players in practice, should become eligible in time for the Dec. 17 game against BYU in Chicago.

That full group changes the dynamic for Illinois, which struggled in the post last season with injuries to Mike Thorne Jr. and Black.

Rebounding was an issue in 2015 16. The Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in rebounds per game and also gave up the fourth most in the conference. Post scoring had its struggles, too, with Michael Finke mostly playing out of position at the 5.

But the Illini bigs were one of the brighter spots Sunday against Wash U. Morgan led Illinois with 20 points on 8 of 10 shooting to go with four rebounds. Finke chipped in 14 points, four rebounds and a couple assists. Thorne showed some rust in his first game since January, but he made 3 of 6 shots and had four rebounds (three offensive). Finke and Morgan worked a nice high low game when they played together.

“Mav and me play really well together,” Finke said. “We both recognize when someone has a mismatch. We look for our buddy. That’s what Coach Groce and all the coaches emphasize look for your buddy and play buddy ball. When the opportunity is there, I feel like we take advantage of it for the most part.”

Morgan and Thorne likely won’t play much together in games, but they’ve been honing their skills against one another in practice.

“Just a physical guy, a skilled guy, he gets to bang up with every day in practice,” Thorne said of the way he can help Morgan, while adding he feeds off his fellow center’s knowledge of the game.

“When he’s playing against me every day especially when we start getting into conference play and playing tougher teams he’s going to be used to going up against a good big man,” Thorne continued. “I can say the same.”

The biggest change Illinois wasn’t able to fully implement Sunday was moving Hill away from the 4 and back to his natural spot on the wing. That’s where he started the game, but two quick fouls on Finke had Hill back at power forward a move he’ll have to make while Black sits out the next five games.

Having the full post rotation has changed one thing in the preseason practices. Hill, who led the Illini in rebounding last season (along with scoring and assists), was almost always the winner of the “Augustine” jersey given to the team’s top rebounder in honor of former Illinois great James Augustine.

He’s had significantly more competition so far this season.

“I think last week was my first time winning it,” Hill said.

“It’s pretty hectic,” Morgan added. “It goes back and forth. Leron’s won a lot of them.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty tough,” Thorne finished. “You’ve got Leron Black, who obviously gets it a lot, and Maverick Morgan, who’s much improved this year. It’s tough to get. You’ve got to work to get it.”
hanes stedman polo Groce seeks more offense through bigs