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.