Rice leads Illinois to Georgia Tech for Big Ten-ACC Challenge

It starts between the ears. At least, it does for John Groce. The head coach of Illinois men’s basketball wasn’t happy with his team’s start to Friday night’s game against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne. For Groce, the slow start was mental.

He didn’t think his five freshmen handled their Thanksgiving Day practice well, following a west coast trip to UNLV. He said the freshmen “weren’t real good” in practice Thursday.

“Often times you play like you practice,” Groce said. “Hopefully it’s a great learning experience for them, and they learn that you have to prepare for every game the same.”

If the veterans on Illinois’ roster feel like they’ve prepared for Tuesday night’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup versus Georgia Tech before, that’s because they have. The Illini (7-0) play the Yellow Jackets (5-3) for the second straight year in the Challenge, this time in Atlanta.

Illinois beat Georgia Tech 75-62 last year at the State Farm Center, in large part thanks to Joseph Bertrand’s personal 10-0 run. The fifth-year senior has never lost a Big Ten-ACC Challenge game.

“I’m the last one here,” Bertrand laughed Monday, referring to Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, who were in Bertrand’s freshman class before he redshirted. “So I’m going to try to keep that going.”

The Yellow Jackets return with almost the same roster from a year ago. They are led by seniors Trae Golden, who averages 13.5 points per game, and Daniel Miller, who is scoring 10.3 points per game and grabbing 8.1 rebounds.

Georgia Tech started off the season 5-1 before losing to Mississippi and St. John’s at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., back-to-back last week.

“They’re a really good defensive team,” center Nnanna Egwu said. “They pack it in and force you to make tough shots. The same thing they did last year. They’re just tough; they grind it out.”

Oddly enough, the trip to Atlanta will be the first of two trips to Atlanta for the Illini in a five-day span. Illinois plays Auburn at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Sunday, a neutral-court location.

Last week’s road trip to Las Vegas may have prepared the freshman for what they are going to experience this week, but for junior Rayvonte Rice, it was a breakout performance. Rice’s 25-point, 10-rebound performance, along with his 17-point, six-rebound game against IPFW earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

“It’s really like a team award,” Rice said. “A lot of people think it’s just about scoring, but it’s about rebounding, steals and all of that.”

“I’ve seen that from Ray playing in the Valley,” added forward Jon Ekey, who played Rice while both played in the Missouri Valley Conference — Ekey at Illinois State, Rice at Drake. “He got off against us a couple times. I know what he’s capable of and sitting out (last year), he’s gotten even better. He’s got a high ceiling.”

Groce knows he doesn’t have to tell his veterans that it starts between the ears. They need to get off to a better start than they did against IPFW, especially on the road against an ACC opponent.

But he also said, as he’s said all year, that he’s going to need contributions from the entire roster.

“We’re going to have to come ready to compete and throw the first punch,” Rice said. “Coach has been talking about that all season, coming out and throwing the first punch.

“It seems like lately other teams are doing that to us.”

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