Illini open with win over Alabama State

In his first game back home, Champaign native Rayvonte Rice scored 22 points and grabbed 9 rebounds to lead Illinois to a season opening win over Alabama State, 80-63. Nnanna Egwu added 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Joseph Bertrand had 14 points and 8 rebounds as the Illini (1-0) dominated the glass 52-28.
Here's a look back at the action.
Veteran's day
No, not that Veteran's Day. This one refers to the Illinois experienced players that stepped it up and carried the team. The four scholarships guys that returned from last year, Rice, Bertrand, Egwu and Abrams, combined for 55 points and 32 rebounds, shooting 19-37 from the floor. These are the guys that are going to carry the Illini this season. There will be flashes from Ekey or one of the young players for a game here or there, but the reality is that the veterans are the key to this season.
The freshmen are a talented group, no doubt. Hill and Tate especially look solid at times. Nunn and Colbert are definitely athletic enough, and Morgan seems to be in the right spot most of the time and is a big body. However, you also see numerous flaws in their games, and a lot of those come from inexperience. Illinois can play one or two young guys at a time, but as they get a 3rd or 4th guy on the floor, you get the end of the game when it looked as if Illinois was the low major and Alabama State was the Big Ten school.
Aggressive style of play
If I counted correctly, Groce, Rice and Egwu used the term aggressive 24 times in the post-game press conference. That might be an important term for this team this season. Rice was aggressive for the most part, attacking and getting to the line 10 times. Bertrand scored in the paint, Egwu grabbed 7 offensive rebounds, and Tate and Abrams penetrated the defense to set up shots for the other guys. Most importantly, the Illini got to the line 30 times, while also grabbing 20 offensive rebounds. It's a results oriented game, but the effort and energy that Illinois played with was probably more important than the score or the number of rebounds. They were aggressive, which is obviously the phrase for the season.
Shooting woes
The shooting from behind the arc is a concern. Illinois shot just 4-20 from 3 point range, and when you consider that likely 11th man Mike LaTulip was 2-3, that means the rest of the guys were 2-17. Ekey was 0-4, and he's been a better shooter than that in his career, but he needs to start making some of those shots. The looks they got were excellent, especially in the first half, but at some point you have to make the shots. Coming into the season that was a big concern, and thus far they have done nothing to alleviate those concerns. If I were scouting Illinois that would be something I would put a star next to.
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* Rice's 22 points were the most for an Illinois newcomer since Brandon Paul scored 22 back in 2009 in his debut as a freshman. You have to wonder if Rice, at 6'3, can continue to finish like that around the rim in the Big Ten games. He has good lift and he is strong, but will it translate and will he get those calls?
* Illinois scored 22 second chance points to just 2 for the Hornets. They also outscored the Hornets 34 to 16 in the paint. The Illini shot 58.5% from 2 point range, including an 11-17 number in the 2nd half. They stopped settling in the second half, and were more efficient inside the arc, and doubled their free throw attempts.
* The game was played at a 69 possession pace. Illinois scored at a 1.16 PPP, while Alabama State scored 0.91 PPP. On the glass, Illinois grabbed a total of 20 offensive rebounds out of 38 available boards. The 52.6% Offensive rebounding rate was the highest since a game against Presbyterian (62.8%) on November 21, 2009.
* John Groce threw out the energy vampires line last year, and added the Eeyore phrase this year. "I don't do Eeyore's," he said. Basically, he likes guys with energy like Tigger. When you watch Joe Bertrand jump after some of those rebounds, you almost feel like he has that bouncy tail that Tigger uses.