Nine new players take the court for first time at Orange and Blue Scrimmage

Illinois basketball fans got their first look at the nine new faces on the Illini roster at the Orange and Blue scrimmage on Thursday, but it was a familiar face that stole the show. Junior center Nnanna Egwu scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds in the intrasquad scrimmage at State Farm Center.

The Illini played four eight-minute scrimmages, splitting up the 14-man roster evenly, and trading players between the Orange and Blue squads after each quarter.

Junior guard Rayvonte Rice scored 17 points of his own in his first appearance for the Illini since last year’s preseason scrimmage (Rice sat out the 2012-13 after transferring from Drake). Sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip added another 15 points.

Second-year head coach John Groce, who spent time coaching from both team’s benches, was pleasantly surprised with the way his team was able to get up and down the court.

“I’ll be honest, I was concerned about our conditioning,” Groce said. “But it was better than what I thought. Which tells me that I’m not going to put up with them at the end of practice not pushing through things because they did it today with people in the stands.”

The Blue team won the scrimmage 59-51 overall, but each period was played like a separate eight-minute game. The Orange and Blue squads won two quarters each.

Egwu stood out in the paint. His teammates had little trouble getting him the ball, and he capitalized on 8-of-9 shooting from the field.

“Coach Groce talks about getting to the box, weather it’s driving or posting up,” Egwu said. “I’m pretty comfortable (in the paint).”

Egwu put on 15 pounds in the weight room over the summer, and it was apparent when he posted up against teammates Darius Paul and Maverick Morgan.

And while Egwu was posting up in the box, it was LaTulip who was consistently driving to the bucket.

“He’s so much stronger than he was last year,” Groce said of LaTulip. “That’s allowed him to be better defensively. I thought he made good decisions for the most part.”

But Groce said the key was making shots, which LaTulip has always been able to do.

For the nine new Illini, Thursday was a chance to get on the court in front of Illinois fans in a game atmosphere. Five freshmen and four transfer players were playing in orange and blue for the first time in front of an announced crowd of 4,786.

Freshman Malcolm Hill impressed, playing from both the 3 and 4 positions, contributing four points and six rebounds. Hill along with freshmen Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and Austin Colbert all competed hard.

“When you’re a freshman, I’m asking those guys to defend, rebound the ball and take care of the ball,” Groce said. “I thought for the most part they did that fairly well.”

Groce said he expects two of the five freshmen to step up and contribute at a “high level” this season. As of now, which two of those that will be has yet to be decided. But Groce said each of the freshmen has gotten better since the summer.

“They’re going to get better, but everybody’s going to get better,” Rice said. “That’s what coach says, just get 1 percent better every day.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.