BY Nathan Brown, AllHoosiers.com
Illinois Fighting Illini (11-2)
Last time out: W, 74-60 at University of Illinois-Chicago on Saturday
In the Fighting Illini's final tune up game before conference play, the team trailed until midway through the second half against UIC. Illinois fell behind by as many as 10 in the opening minutes and trailed by the same number at halftime. The Illini allowed UIC to shoot 62.1 percent in the first 20 minutes and gave up 18 points to UIC's Kelsey Barlow (a Purdue transfer). The second half, though, would be a much different story.
The Fighting Illini scored eight points in the first 64 seconds of the second half to all but erase their deficit. Junior guard Rayvonte Rice then went on his own tear just a few minutes later to score seven straight points in just 58 seconds to take Illinois' first lead of the game. It would be the only lead they would need.
Rice scored a game-high 28 points, just one point shy of his career-high, to go along with seven rebounds and three assists. The Fighting Illini held UIC to just 16 points in the second half on 6-of-23 shooting from the field.
Record: 23-13 (8-10 in the Big Ten Conference)
The Fighting Illini nearly made it all the way through their non-conference slate last season undefeated, climbing all the way to No. 10 in the country before losing Dec. 22 to No. 12 Missouri on the road 82-73.
But Illinois struggled dearly to start the Big Ten regular season, losing seven of the team's first nine games. Their only wins early on were a surprise victory against No. 8 Ohio State 74-55 at home and against Nebraska on the road.
The Fighting Illini then would face recently crowned No. 1 Indiana in Champaign, Ill. on Feb. 7. Both teams battled back and forth before Tyler Griffey caught an inbounds pass under the basket wide open and laid in the game-winning bucket as the time ran out to knock off the Hoosiers 74-72.
This win seemed to jump start the rest of Illinois' regular season, where they began to take off on a five-game winning streak and finished 6-3 in the team's final nine games. Even with a loss to Indiana in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament 80-64, the Fighting Illini secured a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They upset No. 7-seeded Colorado 57-49 in the first round before falling to No. 2 seed Miami 63-59 in the second round.
What they do well:
Big Ten play now begins the time where the Hoosiers will have to battle to control the pace of the game nearly every outing, and Illinois is a formidable first test. The Fighting Illini are scoring more than 10 points fewer than the Hoosiers per game, but they also turn the ball over at a much lower rate than IU, just a notch under 10.5 turnovers per game to the Hoosiers' nearly 16 per game.
The Fighting Illini also sport four shooters in their starting five who are hitting more than 33 percent of their 3-point shots, which will force IU to likely stay close to their men to prevent wide-open shots from beyond the arc.
Illinois also has the benefit of experience on their roster and most noticeably in the team's starting five. With three juniors (Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice) as well as senior Joseph Bertrand and graduate student Jon Ekey, the Fighting Illini hold the upper hand on IU's two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior. Starting Big Ten play on the road will be a tough task for IU's young lineup, and even the veteran Hoosiers fell victim to the raucous crowd at Illinois' Assembly Hall last year.
G Joseph Bertrand, Sr.
Beyond graduate student Jon Ekey, Bertrand is the team's only senior this season. He comes in averaging 10.8 points per game on 54.1 percent shooting from the field and an even better mark (10-for-18) from beyond the arc.
Bertrand may not be the leader in offense on the team, but he has the most experience on a team looking to start conference play off on the right foot this season. He no doubt remembers what it was like to take down Indiana from the No. 1 spot in the country last season, and as the leader of a veteran group, he will be doing his best to make sure the Hoosiers don't come in and steal Illinois' conference opener in Champaign.
G Rayvonte Rice, Jr.
After two seasons as a routine double-digit scorer for Drake, Rice, the Champaign, Ill. native transferred back to his hometown and sat out last season per NCAA transfer regulations. But since returning to the court, Rice has blossomed even more, averaging a career-high 18.2 points per game so far this season, including a 28-point performance his team's last time out over the weekend against UIC.
Rice is Illinois' most reliable shooter, sinking more than 30 more shots than any one of his teammates so far this season. He's shooting an even 50 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc. Rice also manages to take care of the ball remarkably well, averaging just over one turnover per game, while making up for it with his same number of steals per game.