Illinois basketball preview: With 7 newcomers, development is key
BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter November 6, 2013 9:45PM
In this Oct. 24, 2013 photo, Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice drives to the basket during an NCAA exhibition basketball game against McKendree at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. Rice, a transfer who spent two years at Drake, is one of the players head coach John Groce will be looking to when Illinois opens its season in Champaign Nov. 8 against Alabama State. Illinois 23-13 record last season and NCAA Tournament appearance were pleasant surprises. But the heart of that team is gone and no one knows quite what to expect this season. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin Scholz) MANDATORY CREDIT
8 vs. Alabama State 7
10 vs. Jacksonville State 5
13 vs. Valparaiso 6:30
17 vs. Bradley 5
22 vs. Chicago State 8
26 at UNLV 9:45
29 vs. IPFW 7
3 at Georgia Tech 6:15
8 vs. Auburn-w 2
10 vs. Dartmouth 7
14 vs. Oregon-x 8
21 vs. Missouri-y 4:30
28 vs. UIC-z 1
31 vs. Indiana 2
4 vs. Penn State 1:15
8 at Wisconsin 8
12 at Northwestern 6:30
15 vs. Purdue 8
18 vs. Michigan State 7
23 at Ohio State 6
26 at Indiana 2
1 vs. Iowa 6:30
4 vs. Wisconsin 8
9 at Penn State 3:15
12 at Nebraska 8
15 vs. Ohio State 7
19 at Minnesota 8
26 vs. Nebraska 8
1 at Michigan State 1
4 vs. Michigan 6
8/9 at Iowa TBA
w-in Atlanta; x-in Portland, Ore.
y-in St. Louis; z-at the United Center
1 Jaylon Tate G 6-3 Fr
2 Joseph Bertrand G 6-6 Sr
10 Mike LaTulip G 6-1 So
13 Tracy Abrams G 6-2 Jr
21 Malcolm Hill G 6-6 Fr
22 Maverick Morgan C 6-10 Fr
24 Rayvonte Rice G 6-4 Jr
25 Kendrick Nunn G 6-3 Fr
31 Austin Colbert F 6-9 Fr
32 Nnanna Egwu F/C 6-11 Jr
33 Jon Ekey F 6-7 Sr
Updated: November 6, 2013 10:10PM
Illinois hasn’t won more than a single NCAA tournament game in any year since … well, if you’re a follower of the Illini, surely you need no reminder.
It was 2005. It was Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head. It was 37 wins, only two losses and an oh-so-close against North Carolina in the national championship game.
It was nothing like what’ll happen this season in Champaign.
In 2013-14, John Groce’s second season as coach, just getting into the Big Dance would be a significant achievement. Go on and call it unlikely, because it is. But be careful how you define success or failure in regard to these Illini.
Of the 11 players on the active roster, seven will make their Illini debuts in the regular-season opener Friday against Alabama State. Five of those seven — Simeon guards Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, highly touted 6-6 wing Malcolm Hill (Belleville, Ill.), 6-10 center Maverick Morgan (Springboro, Ohio) and 6-9 forward Austin Colbert (Chesapeake, Va.) — are true freshmen.
As a group, the freshmen will be counted on heavily, as will Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, a 6-4 wing who sat out last season, and Jon Ekey, a 6-7 graduate transfer from Illinois State.
They surround three veterans — guards Tracy Abrams and Joe Bertrand and big man Nnanna Egwu — who form the foundation of this team. But Groce knows that foundation must grow wider and stronger for the Illini to survive in the Big Ten. All the newcomers will be given opportunities to step forward. How they develop will be a reliable barometer of Groce’s performance.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” Groce said this week. “You do have to let them play through mistakes.”
There have been a number of positive developments already.
Rice, a Champaign native, has transformed his body and his game since returning home.
“Strength, conditioning, weight, body fat, shooting — you can go right down the line,” Groce said of the improvements made by Rice, who led Drake in scoring (16.8 points per game) as a sophomore.
Nunn has excelled, and Tate, not quite as coveted a recruit, has opened a lot of eyes with his confident, tough-minded play. Call it the Simeon Effect: Groce points to their multiple state championships and their history of playing with, and against, elite high school talent.
Egwu packed on 25 good pounds in the offseason and should be far more of a force on offense and defense.
“I like the progress that we’ve made, and I do think we’re getting better,” Groce said. “I think individual players are improving rapidly, right before our eyes.”
Ekey has emerged as a glue guy. He won’t wow Illini fans with his athleticism, but he’ll earn their admiration with his determined, well-rounded play. Symbolically, Ekey is a key in Groce’s second season. The rotation will number nine or more, but minutes will ebb and flow for many players.
“I like people who do what they’re supposed to do all the time,” Groce said. “Jon does what he’s supposed to do a lot.”
Illini fans eagerly await the recruiting decision of Curie senior Cliff Alexander, who could be one of multiple program-changers reeled in by Groce in the next two years. But this 2013 band of newcomers could chart a successful course all by themselves, if they do what they’re supposed to do — most of the time, at least.