CHAMPAIGN — Getting beat up in the rebounding battle is nothing new for Illinois this season.
But it seemed to make the biggest difference in Sunday's 77-65 loss to Iowa, the Big Ten's first-place team.
The Hawkeyes out-rebounded the Illini, 43-32, with Illinois grabbing just six more rebounds than the Iowa duo of Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury, who combined for 26 boards.
And the Hawkeyes turned those rebounds into points in a big way, grabbing 12 offensive rebounds that turned into 26 second-chance points, a sensational display from a team firing on all cylinders and now standing at 10-1 in the conference.
But, as mentioned, perhaps the rebounding discrepancy shouldn't come as a surprise. Iowa is one of the Big Ten's better offensive-rebounding teams, and Illinois ranks in the bottom three in both offensive and defensive rebounding. The Illini are the Big Ten's worst when it comes to rebounding margin, out-rebound by an average of almost six boards each night.
And, like the explanation for many of the Illini's woes this season, it can be chalked up to injuries. While the point guard position is a glaring weakness for this Illinois squad while Tracy Abrams sits out for a second straight season, it's the loss of their two projected starting big men that might be hurting even more. Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black have spent almost the entire season in street clothes, and the post has been a massive issue on both ends of the floor.
That's not shocking, either, considering how impressive Black was rebounding the ball a season ago and that Thorne averaged more than eight rebounds a game in early season action before he went down with his injury.
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But with those two still out indefinitely, what can the Illini do to better their efforts in grabbing missed shots?
"(We've) just got to control what we can control, block out," Groce said. "Does that guarantee you you're going to get it? No, but it's a good starting point.
"We need contributions from everybody there. We've got to gang rebound. I've been fortunate to coach guys in my career that are just naturally gifted rebounders. Leron Black is one of them. ... Mike Thorne's one of them. But unfortunately those guys aren't out there right now. It is what it is, we've got to figure that out. We've got to control what we can control. So when I watch the film, I'm going to watch and see how well we blocked out. Are we going to be a team right now that leads the nation in defensive rebounding? That's probably not this team's deal right now, but we've got to find a way to be competitive in that area."
The post players the Illini do have at their disposal have shown signs of improvement. A lot has been asked of Maverick Morgan, who grabbed seven rebounds Sunday, and Groce talked about his progression as being a kind of silver lining to the absence of Thorne and Black.
"I thought tonight Woodbury beat him to some balls, but all in all, did he contribute? You look at the stat sheet, he certainly did," Groce said. "Good knowledge of our defense, he's in the right position a lot, and he has gotten better. He has, he's improved a lot.
"With Thorne and Black being out, that's provided Mav and (Michael) Finke some opportunities, probably more opportunities than would've been there otherwise. And maybe that might be a slight silver lining in the cloud in terms of there development. Do I think it's helped Maverick that he's gotten to play more? Yes."
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But while other guys are attempting to step up while the two projected starters remain sidelined, the results just haven't been there. Illinois has been out-rebounded in every conference game and by double digits in all but three. Big Ten size is having its way, generally, with Illinois' big men, and Sunday was no exception, with Woodbury having a terrific game. Not only did Iowa's seven-footer grab 14 rebounds, but he scored 10 points. Uthoff, not a seven-footer but a very talented player with a mighty long wingspan, went for 18 and 12 as the Hawkeyes obliterated the Illini in the post, scoring 32 points in the paint.
And Iowa's phenomenal 26-point second-chance effort didn't sit well with Groce.
"Obviously what bothers me most there is their 26, not our six. Based on the current team we have and our current personnel, I'm more concerned with the gap in the number," Groce said. "I realize there might be a little bit of a gap, but it's too large. We've got to block out better, we've got to engage better. I didn't think we had it there today at a max level."
Now, Iowa is the league's best team, and Illinois shouldn't be judged on its inability to stop one of the top five teams in the country. But certainly the rebounding woes have dogged the Illini throughout Big Ten play. They were out-rebounded by 18 against Nebraska, by 17 against Ohio State. Those are far more distressing performances, and as long as Thorne and Black remain on the bench, that's a trend that seems unlikely to cease.