Despite some sloppy play, foul trouble, and hideous shooting, the Illini still managed to walk away with a respectable 64-52 win over Valparaiso last night.
Possibly the most exciting part about the game was that it was actually on TV, so I was able to watch it free and clear without choppy internet streams. With 5 freshman and 2 more new guys on the court, I was finally able to identify the new guys and see what they can do.
The Illini hasn’t scored under 80 points this year in either exhibition or official games, so 64 points could be a bit of a wake-up call. There were scoring droughts and tons of missed shots, and the Illini shot 31.8%. They still managed to get things done, holding the Crusaders to 32% shooting and outrebounding them 49-36.
Senior transfer Jon Ekey and junior transfer Rayvonte Rice were the hands-down stars, making fans thankful that they decided to come our way. Ekey had 6 points but contributed a whopping 15 rebounds in his 27 minutes of play, a number that Coach Groce commented he hadn’t seen before in the rebound column since he’s been an Illini coach.
Rice appeared to be everywhere all at once, scoring 18 points and pulling down 8 rebounds. Tracy Abrams looked like he was having a bit of a rough night, but the box score shows he had 12 points and 5 rebounds. He also had 2 steals and 2 blocks, but the 3 turnovers have got to go.
Foul trouble was an issue, and Nnanna Egwu actually fouled out, while Ekey finished with 4 fouls. The problem is a lot of the fouls were really dumb, like when Egwu jumped up and landed on a guy for no reason except for the fact that he was out of control. He had a guilty look on his face after it happened because he was fully aware it was a dumb, wasted foul.
The Illini were in the lead for the entire game, but there were a few scary moments where it slipped away. A four minute scoring drought with about 8 minutes in the game allowed the Crusaders to pull within 2 points, 49-47. Last year’s Illini was able to show poise in these situations, while I wasn’t sure what to expect from the inexperienced new guys. Thankfully, Valpo never took the lead and Illinois was able to pull away at the end, finishing with a more than reasonable 14-point lead.
As for the froshies, I can’t say I was impressed with anything they did. Though, it’s very early in the season. I’m sure there are nerves, especially in a game that creeped as close as this one. Malcolm Hill was the only freshman to score, contributing 4 points. Maverick Morgan had 2 rebounds, while Jaylon Tate had 1 assist, 1 to and 1 steal. Of course we’re going to need a lot more from these guys if anything is going to happen for the Illini this year.
As always a win is a win, and in the end the win was rather substantial in numbers. I just didn’t like the looks of it, but I will chalk it up to nerves.
On Sunday, I will get to attend my first Illini game of the year, as they welcome Bradley at 5pm. I would assume Bradley will give the guys a similar amount of trouble as Valpo, but perhaps this time around they will be more prepared.
I will never forget the last time Illinois played Bradley, another game I was able to attend. November 28, 2009 (happy two days before my birthday to me!), Bradley upset #20 Illinois 72-68 at the Las Vegas Invitational. As you can imagine, I was in a fantastic mood and picked an epic fight with a Bradley fan who is a good friend of ours and accompanied us on the trip. Oops. That same Bradley pal will be joining us this Sunday, so here’s hoping for different results.
The game will be on BTND (that’s digital, so don’t expect to be able to watch it from home) at 5 pm on Sunday.