Illinois’ win at UNLV bigger than some seem to believe

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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.

IUPUI to become Horizon League’s 10th member

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The Horizon League officially announced this week that IUPUI will be replacing Valparaiso as the league’s 10th member. Valpo left to replace Wichita State in the Missouri Valley.

“We are excited to welcome IUPUI to the Horizon League family,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “The Jaguars bring us tremendous competitive potential, particularly in men’s basketball, along with an engaged and energized city. Their addition solidifies our broad community partnerships in Indianapolis and is the right school at the right time.”

IUPUI — which stands for Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis — has been a member of the Summit League, which will be left with eight teams now that the Jaguars have departed. They’ve made it to one NCAA tournament, back in 2003, and have been a full-fledged member of Division I for 19 years. That was the year before NBA point guard George Hill enrolled. Current head coach Jason Gardner has been there for three years but has yet to record a winning season; IUPUI has not been over .500 since 2011, when Ron Hunter was still the head coach.

“We are excited about engaging with the other Horizon League member institutions to enhance the overall competitiveness of the league,” said IUPUI Director of Athletics Dr. Roderick Perry. “As an institution and athletics department, our mission, vision, and core values align closely with the Horizon League. This is an important step forward in the life of our athletics department.”

Former Louisville standout Chris Jones shot in Memphis

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Former Louisville point guard Chris Jones was shot while playing basketball in his native Memphis on Tuesday night.

According to a report from FOX 13 in Memphis, shortly after 11 p.m. shots rang out on in Halle Park after an altercation on the court. Two people were taken to the hospital, one with a head injury stemming from a fight. The other was Jones, who was shot in the leg twice, according to the Courier-Journal. His injuries are not life-threatening and he has already been released from the hospital, according to Steve Forbes, his former Junior College coach.

Jones played at Melrose High in Memphis before spending two years at Northwest Florida Junior College and two more seasons at Louisville.

This past year, he spent time playing professionally in Greece and in France, although he played just a grand total of three games in the two leagues.

Perhaps the craziest part about this story is that Jones was shot on a court that is next to a police station. This is a screengrab from FOX 13’s live shot from the basketball courts, and you can see the police cars in the station’s parking lot in the back ground:

Preaching patience, new Pitt AD says hoops program “a complete rebuild”

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Things did not go particularly well for Kevin Stallings in his first year at Pitt. The program, which essentially pushed Jamie Dixon out the door for being consistently good but not often enough great, struggled, going 16-17 overall and 4-14 in the ACC, just two games out of the cellar.

On top of that, six players prematurely left the program this spring.

Not great, especially when you’ve got a new boss that didn’t hire you, as is the case for Stallings with new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke, who came aboard in March. In her first meeting with Stallings, Lyke asked a rather blunt question.

“Do you want to be here?” according to the Beaver County Times.

Stallings answered that he did, and his new athletic director would appear to be willing to give her predecessor’s hire time to reclaim and rebuild the program.

“It’s a steep climb, if you will,” Lyke said. “It’s not something that’s going to come easy and it takes an incredible amount of work.”

Stallings’ personal reputation took a significant amount of damage this spring when he attempted to block Cameron Johnson from an intra-ACC transfer to North Carolina. NBC Sports’ Scott Phillips called him a “town-deaf clown” in his attempt to keep Johnson from being a Tar Heel, a position he later relinquished, allowing Johnson to head to Chapel Hill.

Losing Johnson certainly won’t help Stallings and the Panthers recover from the difficult first season. Pitt didn’t hit any grand-slams in recruiting but is adding four-star guard Marcus Carr in its 2017 class.

The immediate outlook doesn’t look particularly bright, but Pitt appears to be positioning itself to exhibit some patience.

“If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild,” Lyke said. “So I do think that (Stallings) is going to need a little time to develop it.

“But, we’ve got to be headed in the right direction. There’s some things that have got to get better and noticeable improvements. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”

 

Miller Time: Indiana coach cashes in with $24 million deal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — New Indiana coach Archie Miller will make $24 million under his seven-year deal — and potentially even more in bonuses.

Miller accepted the job in March, but the athletic department didn’t announce details of the contract until Tuesday.

He will receive a base salary of $550,000 per year and $1 million in deferred income each season. Miller also will receive an additional $1.85 million in outside marketing and promotional income — and will get a $50,000 per year raise each year through March 2024.

Miller can earn a $250,000 bonus for winning a national championship. He can earn an additional $125,000 for a Big Ten regular-season title, reaching the Final Four and producing multiyear Academic Progress Rate scores over 950.

Utah, BYU rivalry back on after one-year hiatus

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The BYU-Utah annual rivalry series will be back on this season after taking a one-year hiatus last year.

For just the second time since 1909, the Utes and the Cougars did not play in 2016-17 after Utah head coach Larry Kyrstkowiak asked for a one-year cooling off period stemming from an intense and emotional game against BYU in 2015-16. In that game, then-freshman Nick Emery was ejected as a result of this punch that he threw:

The last time those two teams did not play was due to World War II.

The game will be played at BYU on Dec. 16th.

Utah will also play Utah State this season, the first time that they have played the Aggies since 2011.