After knocking off Illinois-Chicago Saturday afternoon, Illinois finished its nonconference slate with an 11-2 record. Heading into Tuesday afternoon's conference opener against Indiana at the State Farm Center, the Illini are just outside the nation's Top 25, receiving votes in both the AP and the Coaches polls.
With only 10 scholarship players and one walk-on available to take the floor, John Groce has gotten the most out of his team, a young bunch that includes five freshmen and two transfers. While the five freshmen have each had their moments of good play, the team relies heavily on their veteran starting five.
Here's a look at those players and what they've accomplished through 13 games this season.
Nnanna Egwu, a second-year starter for the Fighting Illini, is averaging 8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots to start his junior season. Despite an increase in minutes, Egwu has cooled down on the ticky-tack fouls, while continuing to provide all-defensive team efforts.
Egwu has expanded his shooting range from the mid-range jumper out behind the three-point arc, as he's converted on five-of-12 triples this season. His low-post game leaves room for improvement, and he hasn't shown consistency and aggressiveness on the block.
For Illinois to be successful, Egwu needs to play better than he did in nonconference play, against inferior competition and undersized big men. Egwu's backups are freshmen, in the form of Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan, who don't appear ready for extended minutes in the physical Big Ten.
After graduating from Illinois State last spring, Jon Ekey decided to utilize the fifth-year transfer rule and head over to Champaign from Normal. Ekey, a redshirt senior and graduate student, filled into the starting power forward role after Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin graduated last season.
Ekey is a stretch-4 who extends defenses by connecting on 39 percent of his three-point attempts. Ekey has also converted on 89 percent of his free throws and 41 percent of his field goals. He is underrated as both a defender and an athlete and has provided another veteran presence and leader as a team captain.
Ekey leads Illinois in rebounding, pulling in 6 boards per night, while also contributing 8.5 points. He stands 6'7" but plays with an incredibly high basketball IQ, which will help him keep up with the more athletic post players in the Big Ten.
Another redshirt senior, Joseph Bertrand is enjoying his first season as a full-time starter at Illinois.
After playing behind D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul for four seasons, Bertrand has been given the opportunity to shine in Groce's system, flashing his athleticism and leaping abilities on a regular basis.
Bertrand averages 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists, while boasting high efficiency numbers shooting the rock. Bertrand has connected on 54 percent of his field-goal attempts, 56 percent of his three-point looks and 71 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
In fact, Bertrand has shot 50 percent or better in the Illini's last seven games.
At 6'6", Bertrand uses his length to disrupt passing lanes on defense and drive to the basket against shorter defenders on offense. Bertrand's last go-around in Champaign has been successful to this point, though there's still plenty to be accomplished for him individually, as well as with this team.
After a hot and cold start to his junior season, Abrams has picked up the slack recently, averaging 18 points in the Illini's last three contests. Abrams willed the Illini over Missouri, scoring two of his 22 points on late free throws that proved to be the game-winning points in the one-point win.
Abrams averages 12.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists offensively, while also swiping 1.2 steals on the defense end. He recently passed Jaylon Tate as the Illini's top assist man and has trimmed his turnover average from 2.6 to 1.8 since last season.
Abrams has struggled shooting the basketball, connecting on only 37 percent of his field-goal attempts and 25 percent of his three-point looks, but he has made up for it by being aggressive. Abrams leads Illinois in free throws taken and made, converting on 50-of-69 tosses from the charity stripe.
Where would Illinois be without Rice?
The 6'4" redshirt junior is a local kid hailing from Champaign, but he transferred from Drake in 2012 once Groce took the helm. Rice was not recruited by Bruce Weber—or any top programs for that matter—but has proven he can play with the big boys.
Rice averages 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals in 32.1 minutes of action, leading the squad in points, steals and minutes played.
After being named the team's most improved player during his redshirt season, Rice and his slimmed-down frame have been nothing short of exceptional.
Rice is an All-Big Ten candidate if the Illini can keep up their winning ways and find a spot back in the NCAA Tournament. Rice is an improved shooter, connecting on half of his field-goal attempts and one-third of his three-point shots, while also frequenting the free-throw line, making 44-of-60 shots from there.