Chicken or the Egg?

Is Jon Ekey open because Ray Rice and Tracy Abrams drive the ball? Or are Ray Rice and Tracy Abrams free to drive the basket because of Jon Ekey?

CHAMPAIGN – Bradley coach Geno Ford had less than 48 hours to prepare for Illinois.

He delved into the stats and game film following his team's double-digit win over Chicago State, but Ford was unable to give his players the preferred intensive scouting report for the Illini.

By the end of Sunday's 81-55 Illinois victory though, Ford had seen enough to give a proper take and also lay out one of the problems Illinois poses for opponents.

"They were due to get hot," Ford said initially, a nod to Illinois shooting 26 percent from 3 entering the contest. "They're not a bad shooting team. They've not shot the ball well all year and then they came out and banged three straight 3s to open the second half."

That spurt solidified Illinois' fourth straight win to open the season. The Illini hit 7 of its 11 treys in the second half. How that happened, Ford indicated, was due to a classic chicken or the egg quandary that the Braves never could figure out.

Senior Jon Ekey played the chicken. Or the egg. Whichever.

"When he shoots it so well he opens it up," Ford said.

Ekey hit five of his seven shots, scoring a team-high 19 points. The transfer started off the season cold from the floor, but Ford and Bradley have seen Ekey in the past when he played for Illinois State.

He's shot it well previously. Why not stick to him and limit his looks? That's where Rayvonte Rice comes in. He's the egg. Or the chicken. Whichever.

"You have to leave or you're going to watch Rayvonte go to the rim and shoot a lay-up, which nobody's going to do," Ford said.

Rice isn't alone in this push toward the basket.

"I think when Tracy Abrams is making shots, he's at his best when he gets in the lane and shoots his little floater."

Rice had trouble shooting (0-6 from 3), but scored 13 points by attacking the rim. Abrams shot better Sunday, but has always been known more for the threat to drive. And everybody knows what Joe Bertrand is looking to do when he gets the ball. All of that threw Bradley's defense out of sync, and if the attacking trio didn't score Ekey would be the beneficiary a few passes later.

"He's always kind of the guy open. They do a good job looking for him," Ford said.

It's true the competition hasn't been all that, not yet at least. More will be known after trips to Las Vegas, Portland and Atlanta in a few weeks. But so far, Illinois has steadily improved on the offensive end. Ford said the Illini starting five – Ekey, Rice, Abrams, Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu – play well together.

Coach John Groce says his players genuinely like each other. Of Illinois' 28 made shots Sunday, 19 were assisted.

"We have a connected-ness out there," Groce said. "I thought our communication was really good. We've got to continue to grow and build our team. I think that helps with the unselfishness."

It also helps when you get multiple chances on a number of possessions. The Illini have grabbed nearly 18 offensive rebounds per game this season.

"Bertrand and Ekey and Egwu are outstanding with their effort to go offensive rebounding," Ford said. "… I give those wing guys credit, Rice sticks his nose in there. They go. When they go to the glass, they go. They have.

"They just keep scoring because they're getting second shots and second shots and second shots."

That extra effort, along with the chicken versus egg shooter or slasher scenarios, has Illinois playing better than expected on the offensive end.

"They keep putting points on the board," Ford said.

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