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IU opens Big Ten with 'tough' Illinois

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Tipoff: Indiana at Illinois, 3 p.m., Tuesday

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Illini have thrived with fighting approach

Monday, December 30, 2013 - 4:33 am

Indiana is about to test its Big Ten preparations in a big way.

Are the Hoosiers (10-3) ready?

To answer that, take a look at what they'll face Tuesday at Illinois.

The Illini are 11-2 and just outside the top 25. They have a victory over a ranked team (65-64 over No. 25 Missouri). They have a seven-point loss at No. 12 Oregon and a three-point defeat against Georgia Tech as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

“The strongest card we play is we're pretty tough,” coach John Groce said. “We grind. We're together. We battle. We have great guys in our locker room. We have guys who have a lot of pride.”

The Illini also have one of the Big Ten's best newcomers in 6-4 junior guard Rayvonte Rice, a high-scoring transfer from Drake.

Rice averages 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and shoots 50 percent from the field. He often draws the toughest defensive assignment. In other words, he's just what Illinois coach John Groce hoped to get when Rice transfered after averaging 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds at Drake to earn all-Missouri Valley Conference honors.

What makes him good?

“It's his size, strength, hands, anticipation, quickness, explosiveness,” Groce said. “Most importantly, it's his mind. He's a tough dude. All that gives him an opportunity to be a great defender. We ask a lot of him on both ends.”

Rice embraces it.

“The coaches put me in a great situation to be successful,” he said.

Illinois also thrives with veterans Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand. Abrams averages 12.7 points and 4.1 rebounds, and has a team-leading 42 assists.

Bertrand averages 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. He shoots 54.1 percent from the field, 55.6 percent from three-point range.

The Illini are not a deep team. Five players average at least 27.5 minutes a game.

That worked in non-conference play. Will it work against Big Ten competition?

“We've got to have that fight for 40 minutes for what we're about to get into,” Groce said. “Our 11-2 record is a by-product of that fight. We've made a lot of strides. We've got a lot of work to do to get ready for a good IU team.”

Illinois' former Assembly Hall has a new name -- the State Farm Center -- but the same sea of Orange Crush feel. The Illini are 7-0 there after embracing a different non-conference scheduling model than Indiana.

They played six games away from home, including the last three. Two were true road games. The rest were neutral sites, including one game in St. Louis (beating Missouri) and another in Chicago (beating Illinois-Chicago).

They've played six games decided by seven points or less, including a 57-55 nail biter against IPFW.

“We've been through a lot of close games,” Bertrand said. “A lot come down to the last second. The preseason really tested us. We think we're ready. We can score in a lot of different ways.”

IU coach Tom Crean used the non-conference to test his team's depth. Nine players average at least 10 minutes a game. Two others average at least 7.2 minutes.

The Hoosiers are the defending Big Ten champions.

“We have a lot of possibilities,” Crean said. “Playing as many guys as we have, we've put them in different spots. I'm not sure we're going to be able to do that moving forward. A little bit of that is predicated on what kind of consistency level we get from day to day, if we're going to be able to play more people.

“But it's really important that we bring fatigue to the game.”