Coming into this season, no one was quite sure what to make of the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team. It was coming off a season in which it won 23 games and made a trip to the NCAA tournament, eventually losing to Miami in the round of 32.
All in all, it was a successful season for first-year head coach John Groce. He took a team filled with seniors who were hungry for success and got them to trust him and buy into his system, which ultimately resulted in Illinois winning only its second NCAA tournament game in the past seven years.
However, despite last year's success, many were wondering what would happen this season with Illinois losing four senior starters, not to mention another four players who decided to transfer. How would it survive with only one returning senior (Joseph Bertrand) and two returning juniors (Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu) on its roster? Groce's coaching ability seemed sure to be tested.
Well, with their 72-65 victory over Dartmouth on Tuesday, the Illini improved to 9-1 on the season, and a big reason for the early success of this year's team is the play of the two transfers, Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey.
Rice, a junior transfer from Drake who sat out last season, has been everything that Groce could ask for and more. Through 10 games he is averaging 17.9 points and 5.7 rebounds and has instantly taken over the role of closer for this Illinois team. When it needs a bucket down the stretch, the ball is going to No. 24.
Prior to the start of this season, Groce commented on the work ethic Rice displayed while sitting out last season saying, "I don't know if I've seen a guy who's sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides that Ray did. It's hard for guys ... to understand that there's a light at the end of the tunnel and they have to grind every day to get to that light. He grinded."
In fact, Rice grinded so much that he dropped from 267 pounds at the time of his arrival in Champaign to 231 pounds by the start of this season, lowering his body fat percentage from 12.3 to five. He was even named the team's most improved player at the end of last season, which is hard to do for someone who wasn't even playing in any games.
Rice was known more for his ability to get to the rim while at Drake but appears to have improved his jump shot, as he is currently knocking down 33 percent of his three-point attempts compared to the 27 percent he shot while at Drake. If he can keep people honest from the perimeter and continue to get to the rim, he has a chance to have a big year in the Big Ten. His abilities have already put people on notice as evidenced by the following tweet from Big Ten Network analyst Mike Hall.
The BigTen needs to be well aware of Rayvonte Rice of @IlliniHoops - he gooood— Mike Hall (@BTNMikeHall) November 27, 2013
I couldn't have said it better myself.
While there's no doubt that Rice has made a huge impact on this Illini team, his fellow transfer, Jon Ekey, has been impressive as well.
Ekey, a graduate student who played three seasons at Illinois State, has shown his versatility. He is currently averaging 9.1 points per game while shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc and is the team's leading rebounder at 6.2 per game.
He has been a huge asset to a team and coaching staff that wasn't quite sure how it would fill the void at the 4 spot with the graduation of Tyler Griffey. So far Groce likes what he sees out of Ekey and has praised his ability to do things the right way, which is important on a team with so many freshmen.
When asked recently about Ekey, Groce had the following to say:
"He does a lot of things that show up on the stat sheet, obviously you see that, but he does a lot of things that don't [show up on the stat sheet]. He's very reminiscent of [Sam] McLaurin from an intangible perspective. I'm so thankful that we have him."
And Groce should be thankful because Ekey is giving his team things that it really needs, which are outside scoring, rebounding and a steady presence.
Illinois currently stands at 9-1, which should be 10-0 if it didn't have a very unlikely meltdown against Georgia Tech last week, but the team has its two toughest non-conference tests ahead of it.
It travels to No. 15 Oregon on Saturday, followed by the annual Braggin' Rights game against No. 24 Missouri the following Saturday. These two games will no doubt test this young Illini team but should better prepare it for the upcoming Big Ten schedule, which begins on New Year's Eve against Indiana.
With five freshmen and a walk-on sophomore on the bench, the importance of the Illini upperclassmen cannot be overstated. This team will go as far as they take it; which may be further than what people think.
It has a chance to be a very good team, but it's not going to be easy in a rugged Big Ten. It will clearly need everyone to do his job and fill his role each and every game, but without Rice and Ekey on this team, it wouldn't have a chance.
Groce is happy to have them, and Illini fans should be too.