On the heels of Wichita State’s Final Four appearance last season, Illinois Basketball is going to have an active infusion of MVC talent on this season’s roster as the Illini try to continue to build upon the success they found during John Groce’s first season as head coach.
In order for Illinois to bridge the gap from last year’s team’s success to this year’s team’s hopeful success, newcomers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey are each going to have to play a huge role for an Illini team that is short on veteran talent. Both of them are certainly capable of providing quality minutes and veteran leadership this season simply because they bring considerable game experience from one of the more competitive basketball conferences in the country.
Make no mistake that despite its mid-major label; the Missouri Valley Conference is no slouch when it comes to performance on the court.
Rice showcased his offensive ability in 2 seasons at Drake, leading the Bulldogs in scoring both seasons (13.8 ppg as a frosh, 16.8 ppg as a soph), and earned himself recognition for his efforts each year including MVC All-Freshman, and All-Newcomer as a freshman as well as collegehoops.net Pre-League Play All-MVC team as a sophomore.
During his time at Drake, Rice displayed a slashing ability that, up to this point in his career, has been his greatest asset on the offensive end. So, Illini fans should not expect to see him standing outside the arc all season settling for long 3 point attempts. Instead, you can expect to see him taking the ball to the basket, initiating contact, and getting to the free throw line quite often.
Defensively, during his sophomore season Rice led the MVC in steals (1.9 spg), and was also 9th in the MVC in defensive rebounding by securing 148 on the year. His rebounding in particular excites me because Illinois is somewhat thin down low this season. They are going to need everyone to pitch in and rebound all season long if they want to limit second chance opportunities for their opponents.
For those of you that still may not have bought in to the MVC as a barometer for gauging Rice’s talent, there is also evidence that he can get the job done against Big Ten level talent.
Back on 12/17/11, Rice got a shot at Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and proved that he stands up against what the Big Ten has to offer. In his 35 minutes of game action, Rice outshined all scorers in the contest, registering 23 points on 8-16 shooting including 7-9 from the line. He also pulled in 5 rebounds, stole 2 balls, and dished 1 assist.
As for Jon Ekey, comparisons have flown around Illini Nation since his commitment that his style of play is very comparable to former Illini Tyler Griffey. It’s understandable why many people would feel this way, but I honestly feel that it’s selling Ekey short.
Ekey is more consistent offensively when shooting the ball than Griffey ever showed during his tenure at Illinois, and Ekey has more athleticism than Griffey both defensively and rebounding the basketball. What Ekey gives up in bulk, he more than makes up for in vertical leaping ability.
Ekey’s leaping ability coupled with his length is what feeds directly into his shot blocking ability. As a freshman at Illinois State, Ekey set the school record for a freshman with 52 blocked shots. That performance was also tops in the entire MVC for blocked shots that season.
During his breakout sophomore season with the Redbirds, Ekey played in all 35 games, starting 32. In those games he hit at least one 3 pointer per game in 28 contests, and at least two 3 pointers in 19 of those 28.
Last season, there was some statistical regression in Ekey’s play, but I believe it’s directly attributable to his role changing within the new system that was brought in by first year Illinois State Head Coach Dan Muller.
Ekey had proven during his sophomore year that he is more of a spot up 4 than a true power 4, but there seemed to be an insistence last season to use him more in the traditional 4 role. Surely, Coach Groce will recognize that Ekey is an asset beyond the arc, and he will be used more as a finesse 4, capable of stretching the court with his 3 point shooting ability.
Ekey’s high water mark in three college seasons shooting the 3 was 41%, and in that season he was primarily used as a spot up shooter. In his career, Ekey has shot 36.5% from beyond the arc.
He truly is a perfect fit for what Illinois is going to be looking to fill with the departure of so much of last season’s roster both from an experience standpoint and from a stretching the floor standpoint.
The only complaint that I have ever had about his game is that he sometimes has a tendency to drift and get lost in the mix during the game instead of attacking and asserting himself at all times. My biggest hope for him this season is that Coach Groce breaks him of this tendency and he flourishes at Illinois because he certainly has the ability to be an impactful player for the Illini.
With both exhibition contests already out of the way, the real games begin Friday night. Whether Illini fans realize it or not, these two MVC transfers are going to have a lot to say about the success of this season’s Illini squad.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer