PHOENIX — Brad Underwood wanted to see two clear areas of improvement from his team this summer in advance of the 2019-2020 season.
Wanted probably isn’t the right word choice. Demanded is likely more accurate.
At the top of the Illinois coach’s list? A better job by the Illini of getting to the foul line and a significant improvement in rebounding after they finished the 2018-19 season ranked among the bottom teams in the Big Ten.
Two games does not a significant data set make, but Illinois is at least trending in the right direction after beating Nicholls State and Grand Canyon to start the season. The Illini have shot 59 free throws — while allowing their two opponents just 25 — and hold an even clearer rebounding edge at 105 to 69 heading into Sunday’s 8 p.m. tip at No. 21 Arizona in Tucson.
Illinois’ 52 rebounds in Friday night’s 83-71 victory at Grand Canyon was the second most in a single game in a dozen years. The only game better? The season opener against Nicholls State, against whom the Illini hauled in 53.
“That’s part of our identity,” Andres Feliz said. The senior guard is averaging 8.5 rebounds through two games. “Protect the rim and also get the rebounds. You don’t complete good defense unless you get the rebound. That’s something that we focus on — get the rebound, get transition going and flow into the offense.”
Underwood has always emphasized his guards rebounding. While 6-foot-9 forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili might have led the team in rebounding last season, guards Aaron Jordan, Ayo Dosunmu and Da’Monte Williams were right on his heels.
Getting the guards to crash the boards is something Underwood said assistant coach Chin Coleman pushes every day in practice.
“We demand it every day in practice,” Underwood said. “It’s guys going offensively, as well as making sure they’re blocking out defensively. We’ve tried to relay how important it is to run offensively. The last defensive assignment is rebound. When guards rebound, we can get that break started quicker. Those lead to easy opportunities. We’ve emphasized that a lot.”
Seems like Alan Griffin is paying attention. He’s one of seven Illini averaging at least four rebounds per game. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard’s putting in his most work on the offensive glass.
“I don’t care who’s in front of me,” Griffin said. “I’m going to go get it. It’s natural instincts. You can’t really teach that. I time it, honestly. I look at the ball and time it and use my instincts. It definitely takes the energy out of the other team when we get an offensive rebound. You can feel that when you get it.”
Illinois has pulled down 20 offensive rebounds in each of its first two games and ranks third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage — a measure of possible rebounds gathered by the offense — at 51.9 percent.
Those offensive rebounds have led to both 30 second-chance points in the two games combined and a less obvious advantage Friday against Grand Canyon.
“I think we put four fouls on them in the first half on offensive rebounds,” Underwood said. “That’s a little sidebar that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but is very important to us.”
As good as the Illinois guards have been in crashing the boards — Williams is also averaging 5.5 and Dosunmu an even five — one roster addition has changed the rebounding game in a bigger way for the Illini. Literally.
Suffice it to say, 7-footer Kofi Cockburn has had a considerable effect through two games. The Illinois freshman center heads into Sunday’s game at Arizona fresh off consecutive double-doubles, and he leads the team in rebounding at 12.5 per game.
“Kofi draws a lot of attention,” Underwood said. “He draws a body or two — or a least 1 1 / 2 — and that frees things up for other guys to get to the glass.”
Count Bezhanishvili, who’s averaging five rebounds, among those benefiting from Cockburn in the middle. What the Illini have done through their first two games, though, is simply what they practiced throughout the summer.
“Coach Underwood always said we want to become one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and also we have a great addition to that with Kofi,” Bezhanishvili said. “He occupies so much space and so many players. When he occupies guys, I just run around guys and get rebounds. Having Kofi here helps us be a great rebounding team.”