I can't help but laugh when I think about the Illini going on a road trip to Las Vegas because over half the team isn't even old enough to drink inside the casinos, and Malcolm Hill only turned 18 a month ago. Of course, it's for these very same reasons why I think tonight's game against UNLV will be one of the most interesting games we've seen this season.
Coming into the year I counted this as a loss, but UNLV hasn't exactly been tearing it up so far this season. They've started the season 2-2 with wins over Portland State and Nebraska-Omaha and losses against Arizona State and UC-Santa Barbara.
All four games have been played in Vegas.
Still, what's more important to me than UNLV's wins and losses at this point and how it has played is how the Illini will play tonight. We are so very young, and while our youth has not cost us a game this season, we've also played the 340th toughest schedule in the country, and we've played all those games in Champaign. And aside from the Bradley game, it's not like the Illini have truly been blowing people out. Some of the final scores have been lopsided, yes, but they were hardly 40 minutes of sustained excellence.
Which is why tonight's game will be such a good test in my opinion. This UNLV team isn't very good right now, nor is it deep, but it will certainly present some problems for the Illini.
Where it could really pose some problems is on the boards. Yes, statistically the Illini have done pretty well rebounding this season. Their offensive rebound rate of 47% is currently the third best mark in the country. Their defensive rebounding rate of 71.2% isn't nearly as good, though it does rank in the top 100. It's just that those numbers are very misleading because the Illini have been playing teams filled with guys who just aren't very big.
Not hard to out-rebound teams without size.
UNLV does have some size, and it has a couple of good rebounders as well. Roscoe Smith, a 6'8 transfer from UConn, is averaging 16.5 rebounds per game and has had 43 rebounds in the last two games. Khem Birch is averaging 11.7 rebounds per game. Numbers that might be a bit skewed by the fact both play so many minutes, but very impressive none the less.
However, you probably don't need to fear those numbers as much as you might think.
While Smith and Birch are putting up great numbers on their own, the truth is that as a team the Rebels haven't been great, but they've still been solid. They have an offensive rebound rate of 33.9% which ranks 123rd in the country, and their defensive rebound rate of 69.7% ranks 131st.
Of course, this UNLV team does provide itself with plenty of opportunities to grab rebounds. They're shooting only 44.1% from below the arc (282nd in the country), 33.3% from three (174th) and have an eFG% of 45.7% (264th). Simply put, this is not a good shooting team.
For further evidence of this all one needs to do is put a Rebel at the free throw line, where UNLV is currently shooting 50.5%. That's right, they're just managing to make half their free throws. Only Dartmouth and some school named Incarnate Word -- it's a real school according to KenPom -- have shot worse from the charity stripe.
In other words, our best defensive strategy tonight might just be to let UNLV shoot, and if it tries to get to the rim, foul. Send it to the line.
Though it's important to remember that no matter what UNLV's strengths and weaknesses are, if the Illini don't play well themselves tonight, it won't really matter. For road games like this, until the freshmen have a lot more experience under their belt, we're going to need our upper classmen to lead the way. So tonight I'm really hoping to see a strong night from Tracy Abrams.
Tracy hasn't gotten off to the best start this year, though he hasn't played as bad as it feels like at times either. The problems generally stem from the fact that he's just not shooting well at all this season. He's shooting 33% from the floor and 24% from three, with an eFG% of 37%. Simply put, those numbers need to improve. I'd also like to see him do a better job taking care of the ball, as his turnover rate is at 15.9% right now. Not terrible by any means, but I'd still like to see it get lower while his assist rate climbed a bit.
I don't know that Tracy is ever going to become a great point guard for the Illini, but I know he can be better than he has been so far this season.
I'd also like to see Nnanna Egwu step up. He's going to have his hands full with Khem Birch, which means he needs to stay out of foul trouble. I do not want to see Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan having to play a lot of minutes against Birch tonight.
I just feel like the Illini will need both Abrams and Egwu playing well tonight if they're going to win. Hopefully that's exactly what they do.