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Illinois 80 Alabama State 63: And So It Begins

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The Illini open the season with a win, which is really the only thing you could ask for.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the first game of the season. The first chance for all of us to see what this team is going to look like with all these newcomers. And the early impression?

We are going to love us some Rayvonte Rice.

While I wouldn't say anybody had a bad game for the Illini on Friday night -- though plenty of the freshmen did freshmen things -- it was easily Ray Rice who stole the show in his Illini debut. Rice finished the night with 22 points and 9 rebounds, doing a lot of his damage at the free throw line, as he sank nine of his 10 free throw attempts.

Alabama State shot only 13 free throws as a team.

Time after time Rice got into the lane to draw contact, and he was just active all night. He doesn't sit still and wait for the ball to come to him, he moves around and finds the ball. If he can develop a consistent three-point shot -- he was only 1-for-5 from three -- to force defenders to have to defend him on the perimeter he is going to score a lot of points for this team.

It was really nice to see, because coming into this season one of the biggest questions I had was where would the points come from. It's only one game, so we shouldn't go crazy, but for now it appears that Rice is more than capable of filling that gap left by Brandon Paul.

OTHER THINGS

-- Nnanna Egwu had a nice night as well, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds. It's his second career double-double, and they came in consecutive games, as the first came in the Miami game during the tournament. However, Egwu could have had a better night, but the Illini really had trouble getting the ball in to him with Alabama State in a 2-3 zone the majority of the night. Don't be shocked if we see more teams do this against us.

-- Did you know Alabama State has nobody taller than 6'9 on its roster? Well, it's true, and that guy didn't play tonight. Which would help explain why the Illini out-rebounded the Hornets 52-28 on the evening, and the gap was greater than that before Groce went with Jon Ekey and the kids to close out the final six minutes of the game.

-- One of those guys taking advantage of Alabama State's size was Joseph Bertrand, who finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting. It was a very efficient and effective night from Bertrand. Exactly the kind of night I hope we see from him every game this season.

-- Of the starters, Tracy Abrams and Jon Ekey struggled the most from the floor. Ekey didn't make a shot from anywhere but the free throw line, and Abrams was 3-for-10. Combined the two of them were 1-for-8 from three, but they weren't alone in that category. As a team the Illini shot 4-for-20 from three, and that's concerning because three-point shooting was a concern coming into the season. Hopefully it's an outlier as we progress.

-- So, the freshmen? Not surprisingly the guy I was most impressed with was Jaylon Tate. He only had two points and two assists, but he looked to be in control out there when he was on the court. Which is really all I want to see from him this year. As a unit all the freshman shot 6-for-16 from the floor, finishing with 17 points.

-- We turned the ball over a lot. 15 times to be exact. Not going to worry about it, though, because it's the first game of the year and these guys are all still learning how to play with each other.

TEMPO-FREE STATS

Illinois

Points per possession: 1.16

eFG%: 47.5%

Turnover rate: 21.7%

Offensive rebound rate: 52.6%

Free throw rate: 49.2%

Alabama State

Points per possession: 0.92

eFG%: 42.4%

Turnover rate: 10.2%

Offensive rebound rate: 23.8%

Free throw rate: 19.7%

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