After finishing 23-13 and returning to the NCAA tournament under coach John Groce, Illinois opened the 2013 season at Memorial Stadium prepared to continue to build on their success. The Illini welcomed Alabama State from of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, who finished 10-22 last season. Groce threw his freshman into the fire and rotated in fresh bodies throughout the game. It was a team performance, but in his debut, Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice scored 22 points to lead Illinois to an 80-63 victory.
Groce liked how his young team carried themselves.
“I liked the way about us tonight,” Groce said. “I thought our energy, our motor, our preparation today in shoot around—I could tell, I could look in their eyes and see they had it today.”
The Illini started the game with the “Orange Hush,” a tribute to Groce’s alma mater, Taylor University and their famous tradition of “Silent Night,” where the gym remains silent until the team scores their tenth point.
At first it seemed the 15,271 in attendance would be quiet forever, as Illinois took three minutes to get their first basket from junior point guard Tracy Abrams to go.
Four minutes into the contest, a quick cross over followed by a baseline jumper from senior Joseph Bertrand gave the Illini their tenth point, finally erupting the crowd.
While the game may have started slow, the Illini young guns started to put on a show late in the second half.
After a steal, freshman guard Jaylon Tate threw a behind the back pass to sophomore Mike LaTulip, who threw the ball over his left shoulder to freshman Malcom Hill while suspended in the air, with Hill finishing the play with a slam. The play stretched the Illini lead out to 73-45 with 5:15 left.
Moments later freshman Austin Colbert joined the fun, showcasing his athleticism on a reverse slam
Many wondered what Groce’s starting lineup would look like with guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson gone and an influx of new players. Groce went with Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu.
There were many Illinois debuts, but the biggest came from Rice.
Rice’s first basket as an Illini came on an and-one drive that put the new restricted area to use.
Rice would show off his athleticism on another early and-one. Rice launched into the air, absorbed the contact and switched his hands for a lefty finish.
To add to his team-high 22 points, Rice shot hit a three pointer, shot 9-10 at the line and grabbed nine rebounds.
Rice attributed much of his success to the 30 pounds he lost in the offseason, or as his coach put it, “he lost a whole person.”
“My strength and conditioning coach, the staff did a great job with me with my year sitting out,” Rice said. “They just got me moving faster and being able to compete against guards in this conference.”
Along with Rice, newcomers Ekey, freshman guards Tate, Hill, and Kendrick Nunn along with freshmen big men Colbert and Maverick Morgan all saw court the court.
Each player scored at least two points on the night.
“Those guys did a great job tonight collectively as a group, but it’s gonna take all 11 of us,” Groce said. “I’ve been saying that for a long time now. Especially after the summer I sized up our team—tonight we played all eleven guys and we played them all in the first half and those guys made contributions tonight.”
The Illini’s top recruit, guard Kendrick Nunn from Simeon Career Academy scored his first bucket on a drive to the basket at the 6:30 mark in the first half.
In the second half, Nunn turned the ball over on consecutive plays and turned it over three times in just 13 minutes.
Groce wasn’t happy with the team’s 15 turnovers, many of which came in the game’s final minutes.
“I thought until probably the last eight minutes of the game we played with some toughness. I thought we had a lot of soft plays there at the close, but we’ll clean that up.”
While turnovers were an issue for the Illini, rebounds and free throws were a huge plus.
Illinois outrebounded Alabama State 52-28, including grabbing 20 offensive rebounds. Junior center Egwu finished with 10 point and 10 rebounds, as well as 7 offensive rebounds.
The Illini also shot 22-30 at the line compared to the Hornets who shot 8-13.
Illinois only shot 4-20 for three pointers, but shot 24-41 on two pointers. Despite the lack of the three pointers, the Illini reached 80 points, a total they hit only five times all of last season.
The win marked the 15th consecutive season Illinois has opened the season 1-0.
The Illini are only one game into the season, but depth isn’t looking like a concern.
“It’s gonna take that mindset of by committee for this team ultimately to reach its potential this year.”