Illinois men’s basketball opens season against Alabama State

Illinois Rayvonte Rice (24) celebrates during the game against Northwood at State Farm Center in Champaign Illinois on Sunday Nov. 3rd 2013. The Illini won 83-67

By Johnathan Hettinger

The season is finally here.

After first getting together in June, the Illinois men’s basketball team will finally tip off its season Friday night against Alabama State.

For seven Illini — five freshmen and two transfers — it will be their first time competing in orange and blue.

“It’s here,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “It’s hard to believe. It’s flown by. Some of the guys probably don’t feel that way.”

Junior Rayvonte Rice is one of those guys. It’s been 601 days since he has competed in a college basketball game, but he will finally be back on the court Friday after being forced to sit out a year after transferring from Drake.

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“Coach told me: ‘Be patient. Your time will come.’ And it’s finally here,” Rice said.

Rice, a likely starter, has been one of Illinois’ strongest players throughout the preseason. Despite being the last person off the bench in the latest exhibition because of a “coach’s decision,” Rice led Illinois with 16 points and was key to the Illini surviving a 29-4 Northwood run.

Another one of Illinois’ top players throughout the preseason will also be suiting up for the Illini for the first time Friday. Fifth-year transfer Jon Ekey played his first four seasons at Illinois State but will start for the Illini. Ekey has been the highest-graded player for the Illini so far.

Groce said he and assistant coach Dustin Ford have attempted to find ways to criticize Ekey’s game, but it is impossible on a lot of plays.

“You just can’t ding him,” Groce said.

Ekey appreciated his coach’s words.

“That’s just one of those perks of being around for a long time, being able to pick up things that coaches want you to do,” Ekey said.

Groce compared Ekey to last year’s fifth-year senior Sam McLaurin, saying they both worked hard and are among his favorite players he has coached.

“Everybody knows in here I have favorites,” Groce said. “I like the people who do what they’re supposed to do all the time.”

Starting point guard Tracy Abrams will be back after sitting out against Northwood with a mild hamstring injury. Abrams said he is feeling better and even argued with Groce about playing in Sunday’s exhibition.

Alabama State struggled last season, finishing 10-22, but Groce said he expects the quick-paced team to give Illinois fits when it comes to offensive rebounding after Illinois allowed Northwood 17 offensive rebounds.

“They look like darts running in there,” Groce said.

Starting center Nnanna Egwu said Illinois just needs to box out and take advantage of its versatility, and it shouldn’t have difficulty with the Hornets.

The game will also be the inaugural game for State Farm Center, after the stadium was renamed in April. Illinois will also host Jacksonville State on Sunday, starting the season with two games in three days.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.