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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.

Seton Hall’s Derrick Gordon won’t pursue pro basketball to become a firefighter

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12:  Derrick Gordon #32 of the Seton Hall Pirates celebrates after hitting a basket against the Villanova Wildcats during the Big East Basketball Tournament Championship at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2016 in New York City. Seton Hall Pirates defeated Villanova Wildcats 69-67.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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After a successful career that included stops at Western Kentucky, UMass and Seton Hall, Derrick Gordon, Division I college basketball’s first openly gay player, will not pursue professional opportunities and will instead become a firefighter.

The 6-foot-3 Gordon averaged 8.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a senior for the Pirates, helping the team reach the NCAA tournament during his graduate transfer year. By making the NCAA tournament with Seton Hall this past season, Gordon became the first college basketball player to reach the event with three different teams.

A tenacious perimeter defender who could have earned a pro contract if he stuck with basketball, Gordon will instead pursue a career as a firefighter in San Francisco.

“I’ve had an amazing basketball career and want to thank everybody who has always been there supporting me every step on the way,” Gordon said via his Instagram. “But I’m making a change in my career…I will now be working towards becoming a San Francisco Firefighter!! I’m excited about this and looking forward to having a long career!!”

While Gordon likely would have never made the NBA on talent alone, his defensive prowess would have likely given him a shot overseas or in the D League. It’s hard to say why Gordon is making this decision, but given what we saw with all of the attention surrounding Michael Sam when he tried to play in the NFL, Gordon was probably going to face a lot of scrutiny wherever he decided to play.

Hopefully Gordon finds his calling as a firefighter and brings the same energy and leadership that he brought on the floor to helping other people outside of basketball.

Washington guard Markelle Fultz pulls off sick spin and dunk at FIBA U18 Americas

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Kelly Kline/Under Armour
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Washington incoming freshman guard Markelle Fultz is going to be one of the premier players in the country next season as his unique game is going to be fascinating to watch.

The 6-foot-5 Fultz is currently playing with the USA U18 team in Chile for the FIBA U18 Americas as he’s second on the team in scoring and first in assists as the Americans play Canada for the title on Saturday.

Against the host country, Fultz had an electric spin move in the paint and finished with an easy dunk. If you’re not willing to stay up late to watch this dude play this year, then set your DVRs, because Fultz is going to have some fun moments during the season.

(H/t: Jonathan Wasserman, Bleacher Report)

POSTERIZED: Class of 2016 forward Chris Seeley has a massive dunk on defender

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The Las Vegas AAU events are all going on this week and it’s the final event for rising seniors.

At the Las Vegas Fab 48, forward Chris Seeley of the Splash City 17U team put down one of the best poster dunks of the summer as he skied over a defender for an emphatic finish.

The Class of 2016 forward attends Central High School in Fresno, California as he’s receiving plenty of buzz for his recent play.

 

 

 

Five-star forward Jarred Vanderbilt cuts list to nine

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LAS VEGAS, NV — Five-star Class of 2017 forward Jarred Vanderbilt has been one of the most sought-after recruits in the country since he was a freshman in high school.

The 6-foot-8 native of Houston is beginning to wind things down in the recruiting process as he cut his list to nine schools on Friday. Vanderbilt’s list includes some of the most storied programs in college basketball and plenty of schools from his home state of Texas.

“I just followed my heart. Went with the schools I liked the most and who I have the best relationships with. Thear were the schools I could see myself playing for,” Vanderbilt told NBCSports.com.

Regarded as the No. 13 overall prospect in the Rivals.com national rankings, Vanderbilt is currently recovering from a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot.

Vanderbilt will see a doctor in three-to-four weeks as he’s currently in a boot to help his foot heal.

Report: Michigan State and Penn State will play at the Palestra

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Head coach Patrick Chambers of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has previously expressed a desire to coach a game at the legendary Palestra in Philadelphia and it appears he’ll get his chance in a Big Ten game this season.

According to a report from Brendan F. Quinn of MLive, Penn State will use the Palestra as its home gym for the Jan. 7, 2017 Big Ten game against Michigan State. It is the only time the two teams are scheduled to play during Big Ten season and Penn’s home gym will offer a unique setting for the game.

Since the capacity of the Palestra is 8,722, it should make for a fun atmosphere for both programs since this will be a game both fan bases will likely want to attend.

With Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers making Philadelphia a major recruiting priority for his program, a game like this in Philadelphia makes sense while Michigan State has always been open to playing games in unique settings such as aircraft carriers.

The Palestra has been a college basketball mainstay since it was built in 1927 as it hosts all Penn home games and, in the past, hosted a lot of Big 5 Philadelphia college games between La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova.

Overall, a fun idea that should make for an interesting experience for both programs. It’s not often that a team will change its home venue for a conference game, but it could be the start of something we see other schools look to do.