ICYMI: Illinois vs. Alabama State
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Rice and New Teammates Showoff Home Court Advantage
The 2013-14 Fighting Illini roster has a dramatically different look than last year's squad. Head Coach John Groce welcomes five freshmen and two transfers to add to the four returning players (not to mention three more transfers that have to sit out the 2013-14 season).
Leading the pack was junior Rayvonte Rice, a Champaign native and transfer from Drake University, whose homecoming appearance stole the show against Alabama State. A local high school star at Champaign Centennial High School, Rice sat out last season after transferring from Drake. His first game at the State Farm Center as an Illini didn't disappoint.
Rice tallied a team-high 22 points, equaling the most points in an Illini debut since Brandon Paul scored 22 points against SIU-Edwardsville to open the 2009-10 season. He also added nine rebounds in his Orange and Blue debut.
"My job is to be aggressive and do what I can for my team and do what my team needs me to do," Rice said. "My teammates put me in great situations for the ball. Coach would say to always be aggressive, so like he said, just be aggressive and attack the basket."
Although this was his first regular season game as an Illini, Rice says he is already used to playing because of their two exhibition games. He says he's "30 pounds lighter" than he was when he last played, and he credits the strength and conditioning staff for really shaping him and his play during his year of sitting out.
"He's aggressive," Nnanna Egwu said. "He attacks and goes to the basket. He attacks the rim and he helps all of us, because once you attack the basket everyone has to come in and collapse to the paint. He can dish it out to open three-point shooters or dump it down to me or the other bigs. And it's not just him, Tracy (Abrams), Joe (Bertrand), they all do those things and that's why they're so important to our team."
While Illinois shot a disappointing 20 percent from the three-point line, Rice got it done by getting in the lane and drawing fouls, adding the extra points by going 9-of-10 from the free-throw line.
"I just want him aggressive," Groce said. "There were a couple times tonight I didn't think he was as aggressive as he needed to be, even when you look at the stat-line. I think he's at his best when he's aggressive. Ray's one of these guys that really wants to be unselfish and if I don't stay on him, sometimes I think he thinks that means just giving it up to others. I want him to be aggressive, that's his role."
Return of the Orange Hush
To recognize Coach Groce's inaugural game at Illinois, the Orange Krush student section organized "Orange Hush" for last season's home opener as a tribute to Groce's alma mater, Taylor University. Krush and Illini fans replicated Taylor's famous tradition of "Silent Night," where at one designated game each season, the entire gym remains silent from tip-off until the Trojans score their 10th point. When that point is scored, the crowd then erupts into a wild celebration.
Following the success of last year's Orange Hush, the Krush decided to make this an annual event for Groce and the Illini, continuing the tradition at each year's home opener to kick the season off with a boost of energy. This year's crowd pulled off the tradition after staying quiet for the Illini's first eight points until senior Joseph Bertrand hit a baseline jumper at the 16:04 mark.
"I thought it did for sure," Groce said about the cheer giving his team momentum. "Obviously it's very noticeable when you get to that tenth point or beyond and the place explodes. I thought that was really neat. I think it's a great tribute to a great place I went to school. And I wouldn't be here without the experience I had at Taylor University. It's a great place and I have a lot of fond memories there. So more than anything, I think it really reminds me what I think of that place, which is great memories for me."