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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.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown:

Niang, Morris lead No. 14 Iowa State past No. 24 Texas

Iowa State forward Georges Niang drives past Texas guard Tevin Mack, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After falling at Texas Tech for the second straight season midweek, No. 14 Iowa State needed to bounce back with No. 24 Texas visiting Hilton Coliseum. The return of Jameel McKay, who was suspended for two games, certainly helped the Cyclones and the play of Georges Niang and Monte Morris was key as well. But the biggest difference on this night was the fact that Iowa State was able to limit the effectiveness of Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor.

 

Taylor scored just nine points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field, and with Morris and Niang scoring 24 points apiece the Cyclones won by the final score of 85-75.

Taylor had multiple opportunities to make plays around the basket thanks to his ability to beat defenders off the bounce, but he struggled to finish. Add in a 0-for-4 night from three, and Texas’ most dangerous offensive option was unable to duplicate his performance in the first meeting between the two teams. In Texas’ 94-91 overtime win over the Cyclones January 12, Taylor scored 28 points and dished out six assists with just one turnover, shooting 11-for-17 from the field.

Four Longhorns finished in double figures, with Tevin Mack and Javan Felix scoring 18 apiece, but with Morris decisively winning the point guard matchup Texas was unable to pick up the win on the road.

For Iowa State the aforementioned tandem of Morris and Niang performed as they did in the first meeting, which should come as no surprise. What helped them, especially when it came to Texas attacking the basket, was the presence of McKay. McKay finished the game with eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 22 minutes of action, and to have their best interior defender back on the floor certainly helped the Cyclones on this night.

With their lack of depth Iowa State’s margin for error is small, especially when it comes to foul trouble, injuries and disciplinary reasons.¬†Even with Texas’ size advantage Iowa State outscored them in the paint 48-34, and McKay’s defensive ability factored into that. The Cyclones can put points on the board with the best of them, but at some point they’ll need to string together stops as the games get even bigger.

Iowa State managed to do that down the stretch, with Morris and Niang running the show offensively. And that’s a good formula to be able to rely upon as the season approaches its most important month.