Illinois’ win at UNLV bigger than some seem to believe

1 Comment

Prior to their game at UNLV on Tuesday night, Illinois had yet to play a game away from the friendly confines of the State Farm Center in Champaign. John Groce’s team won those five games by an average margin of 20.6 points per game, with the closest result being a 64-52 win over Valparaiso on November 13. For the most part the Fighting Illini, who are getting used to life without Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, had not been tested prior to their trip to Las Vegas.

Rayvonte Rice’s layup with 27 seconds remaining proved to be the difference as Illinois beat UNLV 61-59, with Kevin Olekaibe’s corner three-pointer missing the mark in the game’s final seconds. If looking at this game merely from a “resume” standpoint it can be argued just how big of a win this is for Illinois. UNLV’s off to a 2-3 start on the season, with the three defeats coming at home to UCSB, Arizona State and Illinois, so it’s rather apparent that Dave Rice’s team has some things to figure out before the start of Mountain West play.

But to look at UNLV’s slow start and decide that this isn’t an important victory for Illinois would be to take a view that’s a bit too simplistic.

Illinois does have experienced options back from last season’s NCAA tournament team, with senior Joe Bertrand (six points and six rebounds on Tuesday) and junior Tracy Abrams (five points and four assists) playing key roles on that squad. But in Paul (16.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Richardson (12.3, 3.9) Illinois lost its top two scorers and two of its top three players in regards to possession percentage, with Paul factoring into a team-high 28.8% of the Illini’s possessions per kenpom.com.

With those two gone the question of who steps up is an important one for Illinois to answer as Big Ten play approaches, and on Tuesday night it was clear that Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is the primary offensive option for this group. Rice finished the game with a career-high (at Illinois) 25 points to go along with ten rebounds, and with the game on the line it was his number that was called.

“Ray was option one (on the final play),” Groce said after the game. “Tracy found Ray and went with the hot hand. Winning on the road, big-time players have to make big-time plays.”

In addition to Rice junior center Nnanna Egwu performed well at UNLV, finishing the game with 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting and three rebounds. The rebound count is lower than what Illinois will need from Egwu this season (he’s averaging 6.5 rpg), but he’s reached double figures in scoring five times this season after doing so just six times all of 2012-13. Egwu’s been a more impactful player thus far, and Tuesday’s performance is another step in the right direction.

With the new pieces, including five freshmen, at Groce’s disposal there will be many lessons for this Illinois team to learn between now and New Year’s Eve, when they open conference play at home against Indiana. And with non-conference games against Oregon and Missouri yet to be played, there’s a good chance that those results will prove to be more valuable than a win at UNLV come Selection Sunday.

But for a team that had yet to be tested away from Champaign, Tuesday’s win was about more than their NCAA tournament resume.

VIDEO: Arizona State’s Torian Graham dunks over teammate

Leave a comment

Arizona State fans won’t get a chance to see Torian Graham take the floor this season, but he did sky over fellow teammates (and transfer) Shannon Evans on Friday night at the team’s Maroon and Gold Madness. The 6-foot-4 Graham is a former Buffalo commit — Evans also came from Buffalo — and both players will have to sit out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer regulations.

Graham hasn’t had a chance to get into a Division I game, but he’ll be able to play for the Sun Devils next season. For now, fans can look forward to Graham’s athleticism on the wing in pregame dunk routines.

A former top-100 prospect, Graham also pulled off this ridiculous move in the dunk contest.


VIDEOS: Bill Self makes two skits, Bragg plays piano

Bill Self
AP Photo
Leave a comment

Kansas head coach Bill Self is known for being unique for the annual Late Night at the Phog and this season, he went with some parody videos centered around the recent DirecTV ads. In the two skits, Self plays himself — which acknowledges his many accolades — while playing alongside “short shorts Bill Self” and “graduate assistant Bill Self”.

Hard to say if these videos top Self showing up in a suit like Andrew Wiggins last year, but there do have good promotional value for the program and Self.

Kansas players also had their chance to shine, with both men’s and women’s teams doing dances. Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor also attempted to lip sync to Michael Jackson. Freshman forward Carlton Bragg showed some solid ability on the piano, which got the crowd going. Bragg was also one of the strong points in a scrimmage.

Of course, the highlight of the night is Bill Self losing $10,000 on a halfcourt shot, but here’s everything else notable from Late Night at the Phog.