Three Thoughts About Illinois After Three GamesPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on November 14th, 2013
John Groce’s Illini have several new faces this season after the departures of Brandon Paul, D.J.Richardson and Tyler Griffey from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. Over the past three seasons, Paul and Richardson were fixtures in the Illinois offense. Richardson was also pivotal on the defensive end as he picked up the toughest assignment on the wing. After three games this season, we can start discussing how the newcomers fit into the rotation and complement the existing core of returnees Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. All three played significant minutes last season and are expected to be the primary scoring options for Groce this year. Let’s examine the three new players – Rayvonte Rice, Jaylon Tate and John Ekey – that could really help Illinois reach its goals this season.
- Rayvonte Rice: The Drake transfer is already known for his scoring prowess based on his career in the Missouri Valley Conference, where he averaged 16.8 PPG as a sophomore. But it will be interesting to see how Rice will fit into the Illini offense because his game is very similar to Bertrand’s. They are both athletic and prefer to cut to the basket rather than pull up for jumpers, but Rice seems to have a tendency to shoot from beyond the arc more than Bertrand – he has already averaged 3.5 three-point attempts per game. He is clearly not afraid to pull the trigger, fitting well with Groce’s philosophy of a free-flowing offense, but he will need to be a bit more selective with this shot selection going forward. That said, there is no designated long-range specialist on this squad, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rice attempt an unhealthy amount of three-pointers. Shooting 28 percent from the perimeter is far from effective shooting, but Rice’s athletic ability to attack the basket will definitely add another dimension to help the Illini this season.
- Jaylon Tate: The point guard from Simeon High School is probably more famous for playing alongside Duke superstar Jabari Parker than for his own game. Tate looks very comfortable in Groce’s offense so far, which is designed to be fast-paced and to pick up as many points as possible in transition. Even though his jumper has appeared unstable, he has shown great court vision by averaging 5.5 APG and has proven that he can take the ball coast to coast if the opposition fails to acknowledge his speed. Statistics aside, he looks like he is a fluid passer who will serve as an excellent backup to Abrams this year. Even though Abrams is not a pure point guard like Tate, the freshman may be a better fit to Groce’s offense over the long run. Still, the Illini need offensive options this year and Abrams’ jumper is still better than Tate’s so he will have to settle for around 15 MPG as a backup.
- John Ekey: Last year, Sam McLaurin was one of the most underrated big men in the Big Ten. The fifth-year senior transferred to Illinois and stepped in to provide a much-needed help in the paint to Nnanna Egwu, who was still coming up to pace as a sophomore. Ekey could serve as that experienced transfer this year after playing for two seasons at Illinois State. He should see consistent minutes next to Egwu on the front line but his best contributions will come in the form of experience and intangibles. During Tuesday night’s win over Valparaiso, Ekey was active in setting high ball screens at the top of the key and stepping back for an open look from beyond the arc. He has a decent-looking jumper, but like Rice, he will have to shoot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc to be effective. On thte rebounding front, he will do what he can to help Egwu there too. He may not pull down 15 boards as he did against Valpo, but a third of that total nightly would be a solid contribution to the team this season.