Illini are all business heading to Clemson and hope to play next against Belmont.
CLEMSON, S.C. — Today’s game at Clemson (10 a.m., ESPN) won’t be Rayvonte Rice’s first trip to the Palmetto State. After his freshman season at Drake, he made the trip east with teammate Jeremy Jeffers, a native of Wilson, N.C., to spend the spring break week after the Bulldogs missed the postseason that year.
“He’s from that area, so we went to Myrtle Beach to hang out,” Rice said. “We just hung out at the beach, enjoyed the nice weather and just chilled.”
As much as Illinois’ top scorer enjoyed his time soaking in the sun, Rice is hoping it’s a while before he gets that opportunity again. Classes at the University of Illinois are off this week as the campus observes spring break. Rice and his Illinois teammates haven’t made any vacation plans because the second-seeded Illini (20-14) are looking forward to having business on the court during the week. They’ll have to get by the third-seeded Tigers (21-12) today at Littlejohn Coliseum for the chance to play Belmont in an NIT quarterfinal that will be played either Tuesday or Wednesday.
“Yeah, that was fun, but I’d much rather be playing ball,” Rice said.
Joseph Bertrand echoed Rice’s sentiments. In his five years at Illinois, Bertrand has been available to make a spring break trip once — after the 2011-12 season when the Illini were not invited to the postseason — and he stayed home. He’s received plenty of photo updates on Facebook and text messages from friends sharing experiences and tales of their mid-March exploits.
“I see plenty of it. It looks like a good time,” Bertrand said. “I knew what the deal was, though. I came to college to play basketball, and I have an obligation to get this done before any of that fun can happen.”
Freshman Maverick Morgan has been a regular spring breaker. Every year since the big man was in sixth grade, he headed south to Siesta Key, just outside Sarasota, Fla., during the break in the schedule for some vacation time.
“It’s kind of weird. This is the first time I won’t be doing that for a long time,” Morgan said.
Morgan spent the week in a condo with friends, walking to the beach and just kicking back. If Morgan has his way, there will be no beaches, rest or relaxation forthcoming this week, just practices and game preparations.
“Hopefully we’ve got stuff to do all week. That’s the plan,” he said.
The one free spring break Jon Ekey had during his four years at Illinois State, the Independence, Mo., native spent it watching other guys play basketball.
“I watched the tournament games on TV, and I actually went to Big 12 championship games in Kansas City,” Ekey said. “I had a friend who was a Mizzou fan, and I went there with him.”
Like Bertrand, Ekey has friends who are always eager to share their experiences with him via social media and text messages.
“It looks like a good experience, a lot of fun,” Ekey said, “but I’d much rather be traveling and spending time with these guys, my teammates.”
This Illinois team has used the postseason to rally behind Bertrand and Ekey, the lone seniors on the roster. The next game always has the chance to be their last, and they’re doing whatever they can to extend that spring break drought another year and extend the fifth-year seniors’ careers.
“We don’t want Joe and Jon’s season to end,” Rice said. “We’re going to go out, keep competing and do whatever we need to do for those guys.”
A couple more wins and it will be the Illini sending photos and sharing stories with their friends about a neat experience: the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
“Basketball has taken me to a lot of cool places, places a lot of people don’t get to go, so I’d rather have this experience,” Ekey said. “I’m having a good time with this and want to keep it going.”