Illinois Basketball: Analyzing Fighting Illini's 2-0 Start to Regular Season

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2013

Nov 10, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Jacksonville State Gamecocks guard Randall Smith (3) is defended by Illinois Fighting Illini guard Joseph Bertrand (2) and Illinois Fighting Illini guard Malcolm Hill (21) and Illinois Fighting Illini forward/center Nnanna Egwu (32) during the second half at State Farm Center. Illinois defeated Jacksonville State 86-62.  Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

John Groce and the Illinois Fighting Illini kicked off their season at the newly named State Farm Center on Friday Nov. 8, as the Orange and Blue defeated Alabama State, 80-63. Less than 48 hours later, the Orange and Blue were back on the hardwood, beating Jacksonville State 86-62.

All 11 Illini players scored in each contest, as Groce was able to utilize his bench often in the lopsided wins. With five freshmen and a walk-on off the bench and two starters that are new to the program, easy wins like these are a good chance for everyone to gel together and gain on-court experience.

Statistically speaking, here is a look at each of the active players averages through two games. While it may seem too early to look at these figures, it does give a quick glimpse at how everyone has performed thus far and help give a glimpse of potential production for each player as the season wears on.

Rayvonte Rice17.
Joseph Bertrand17.
Tracy Abrams11.
Nnanna Egwu10.
Jaylon Tate6.
Malcolm Hill5.
Mike LaTulip4.
Jon Ekey4.
Austin Colbert3.
Kendrick Nunn2.
Maverick Morgan2.

After hearing about a physically improved Rice, he was able to prove it on the court this weekend. After transferring from Drake back to his hometown, Rice was nothing short of great in his opening weekend as an Illini. Rice is skilled in all facets of the game and will be a regular and efficient free-throw shooter. 

Bertrand notched the team's second double-double of the season on Sunday, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Bertrand does not appear phased by his new role of starter and will be looked upon to play heavy minutes for the first time in his career, as an experienced redshirt senior.

After a sluggish first half of Sunday, Abrams came alive in the second half. On three consecutive possessions, Abrams drove on the right side and banked in a floating shot off the backboard. Abrams' three-point stroke still appears inconsistent. 

Nov 10, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Tracy Abrams (13) is defended by Jacksonville State Gamecocks forward/center Jamal Hunter (32) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Egwu scored 10 points and pulled in 10 rebounds on Friday night, his second career double-double. His first came in last season's NCAA Tournament loss to Miami, making this back-to-back double-double efforts. Defensively, Egwu swatted seven shots. Offensively, he looked smooth with his mid-range shot.

The lowest rated of Illinois' five freshmen coming out of high school, Tate, has been the most impressive early on in his collegiate career. On Sunday alone, Tate scored 10 points and distributed eight assists, while only turning the ball over once. Tate also allows Abrams to move over to shooting guard at times.

Tate and Hill appear to be the first players off Coach Groce's bench. Though Hill struggled with his shot over the weekend, he was aggressive in attacking the hoop. The 6'6" swingman saw plenty of time at power forward and looks to have added muscle since his prep days at Belleville East.

Sophomore walk-on LaTulip is a sharpshooter, though, he may be undersized to play extended minutes at shooting guard in Big Ten play. Still, LaTulip connected on three of four long range shots and can also handle the rock. Look for LaTulip to continue to see the floor, as the team's most well conditioned player.

Similar to Hill, Ekey's shot wasn't falling in his first two games as an Illini. Still, Ekey was able to impact the game in other ways, by hitting the boards and defending his position. Ekey will be the team's best deep threat, but more importantly will make the little plays that help the team win games. 

Ekey's backup, Colbert, fit the raw description that was associated to his game once he committed to Illinois. Colbert always looks to flush the ball through the hoop, but hasn't proved that he has an offensive game outside of dunking. Colbert can still provide energy off the bench when called upon.

Maybe the most surprising presence, or lack thereof, over the weekend was Nunn. While playing the second-least minutes in the two game stretch, Nunn played out of control at times. Offensively, he tried too hard to make plays that weren't there. Defensively, he was handsy, which could lead to foul trouble.

Morgan provides size behind Egwu on the depth chart, but at this point, that's about it. Morgan looked lost on the court and was burned for a few easy buckets while defending the paint. While Morgan isn't expected to produce on offense, he will need to rebound, defend and use his five fouls when needed.