LIVE! Season opener

Illinois 80, Alabama State 63 — FINAL

CHAMPAIGN — Rayvonte Rice scored a team-high 22 points to go along with nine rebounds in leading Illinois to a season-opening win for the 15th consecutive season.

Rice, the Champaign native, who began his career at Drake, entered the game needing 17 points to reach 1,000 for his career.

Nnanna Egwu recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds while Joseph Bertrand (14 points, eight rebounds) also reached double figures.

All 11 eligible Illini played Friday and all scored.

Tracy Abrams, who missed the exhibition finale with a strained hamstring, finished with nine points, five rebounds and three assists.

Alabama State got 28 points from Jamel Waters.

Illinois returns to action on Sunday at home for a 5 p.m. game against Jacksonville State at the State Farm Center.

More later on HQ.

Illinois 58, Alabama State 37 — 11:52 second half

BREAKING: Popcorn Boy is back on the Ryan Dallas Dance Cam. Let’s see if he improved his dance moves in the offseason.

Rayvonte Rice has 20 points, by the way. He’s 9 of 10 from the foul line.

When ASU’s Luther Page got the ball in the post on the first possession of the half, Dustin Ford screamed “LEFT SHOULDER, LEFT SHOULDER!!!” It resulted in Nnanna Egwu getting an easy block.

There’sa play Illinois kept running early in the half that was working. “Want to stay with that until they start guarding it,” John Groce asked Ford.

DeMarcus Robinson was fouled on the floor by Ekey, took two steps and made a shot. He was awarded a free throw and the bucket by Ed Hightower. All of a sudden this is the NBA.

Jeremy Werner reports that Indiana shot 45 free throws tonight, a school record. They beat Chicago State 100-72. Tom Cream will claim his team didn’t get enough calls.

Bradley and Jacksonville State, Illinois opponent on Sunday, were playing a barnburner in Peoria. It’s 17-15 at the half. It doesn’t matter who’s winning.

“Tracy, more nastiness. Kendrick, more nastiness.” — John Groce

Next defensive possession, Abrams drew an over-the-back foul on the Hornets.

Illinois 40, Alabama State 26 — HALFTIME

Alabama State went the final 4:12 of the half without a field goal and had just one free throw during that stretch.

Rayvonte Rice nearly made the SportsCenter Top 10 with a reverse tip dunk. It would have been a candidate for “The One” on the new Fox Sports 1.

Tracy Abrams, not much of a celebrator, posed while running down the court after a spinning layup on a fast break late in the half. It was started by a Kendrick Nunn steal and a nice pass to Abrams in traffic on the run.

Mike LaTulip has had a nice impact in the first half. He lost a defender with a step back and the bench went nuts. He missed the shot, though.

Kendrick Nunn checked in for the first time at the 8:27 mark.

Kind of funny, when the whistle blows at the designated media timeout markers, the entire Illinois support staff on the bench rises from their seats and yells “MEDIA!”

A fan at the under-8 timeout made a layup, a free throw and a three-pointer without missing to win $500 in tires from Car-X. They need him on the floor shooting threes in an orange uniform.

Loren Tate reports even during timeouts, when the cameras aren’t live, Ted Valentine is still drawing attention to himself. Loren’s bored. He’s got to wake up at 5 a.m. to drive to Indiana for the football game tomorrow. He works harder than any 82-year-old I know.

All 11 eligible players have played for the Illini. Austin Colbert checked in at about the 4-minute mark. He missed a dunk, but I think he was fouled. Photographer Robin Scholz says she has a shot of the defender’s arm going through the rim. Should have been goaltending.

Tracy Abrams disagreed with a foul called against him. He and official Gerald Williams exchanged a fist bump after the chat.

An ill-advised alley-oop pass from Joe Bertrand to Ray Rice resulted in a turnover and also almost resulted in John Groce breaking the scorer’s table.

Illinois shot 39.5 percent (15 for 39) in the half and 20 percent (3 for 20) from long range.

Alabama State went 9 for 30 (30 percent) from the floor and 5 for 10 from deep.

Illinois out-rebounded the Hornets 31-15 with 13 offensive rebounds in the half. Alabama State had three offensive boards.

Rice has 11 points and six boards. Bertrand has nine points and five boards.

I’ll be back in the second half.

Illinois 15, Alabama State 14 — 11:08 first half

The Orange Hush didn’t work so well. The students followed the rules, but the regular folks cheered after a couple of Illinois buckets and good plays early. Some folks just don’t pay attention.

Joseph Bertrand’s crossover and bucket at 16:04 got the Krush up on the feet and rowdy. It happened early, that’s a good thing. It could have gotten weird if it went into the first media timeout.

Bertrand was also called for a charge early. One of the few charges you’ll see this year. Rayvonte Rice was initially called for a charge, but the officials decided the Alabama State defender was in the restricted area.

Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate were the first Illini off the bench.

Hill penetrated the zone on his first possession and hit Nnanna Egwu with a pass leading to an easy bucket.

The Hill got called for a quick foul on the other end.

Illinois started 1 of 9 from three and John Groce kept yelling “Good shot!” at his guys.

The Illini are 4 for 9 inside the arc and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line.

Mike LaTulip checked in and promptly pulled down a grown-man rebound. Get big, Mike!

Rayvonte Rice pulled down his own grown-man rebound and went coast-to-coast with it to make a grown-man layup while getting fouled. He converted the three-point play.

Alabama State at Illinois — (ESPN3) TIPOFF

Illinois will start tonight’s game with Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu. That’s the “veteran” group.

Abrams is good to go after tweaking his hamstring last weekend in practice.

I caught up with former Illini Sean Harrington a little while ago. He’s calling tonight’s game for ESPN3. Harrington has been following the Cliff Alexander recruitment and he’s got some unique ties to the two programs considered to be the front runners (Kansas, Illinois).

Harrington, of course played here for Bill Self, Kansas’ coach, and he spent time on Self’s staff at Kansas, too.

“That’s the beauty of my job is you don’t really care. As an Illinois alum, you always want to see Illinois sports do well but it’s really nice not to have a say in it. I’m not going to lose sleep over it either way,” Harrington said.

Ed Hightower is one of your officials tonight. Rumor has it tonight is Hightower’s last game in Champaign. Hightower is supposedly retiring this year.

He just posed for photos with Loren Tate and Jim Turpin. Mike Thomas shook his hand before the game, too.

He’s working with TV Teddy Valentine.

Hightower was recognized on the court prior to the game.

There was a video played on the scoreboard before the game featuring a lot of the legends  whose jerseys hang from the rafters. It was pretty neat and set to Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.”

Michigan is tied with UMass-Lowell 23-23 at the half.

Pretty decent crowd filing in here just before the tip. Hope they got the memo to be quiet.

John Groce gave fist bumps to the radio crew as “Chelsea Dagger” played through the State Farm Center speakers. That song never, never gets old.

Alabama State at Illinois — (ESPN3) 7 p.m. tipoff

The first Illini on the floor tonight was Jon Ekey. The Illinois State transfer has made that a habit through the exhibition season.

Remember, tonight is the Orange Hush, so if you’re watching on ESPN3 or listening on the radio, it’s going to be quiet here in the building until Illinois scores its 10th point. It’s what they do at Taylor University, John Groce’s alma mater, for one game every year. Groce requested the Krush do it again this season after they did it a year ago to welcome the Groce family to campus.

As I wrote in our coverage today, 2 Chainz played one season of college basketball at Alabama State. For those unfamiliar, 2 Chainz is a rapper, who’s been nominated for Grammy Awards and his album “Based on a T.R.U. Story” topped the Billboard chart in the summer of 2012.

He’s the most famous basketball alum in Alabama State history. The program has reached four NCAA tournaments and is still searching for that first win. The most recent NCAA trip was in 2008.

I haven’t heard any 2 Chaniz yet here tonight. I’ve heard Justin Timberlake (you know how I feel about JT), Ke$sh (don’t like her as much), Katy Perry (she’s pretty) and Justin Beiber (hate him).

By my count, the Hornets have 10 new players on their roster this season, so they’ve experienced turnover much like what Illinois has. A lot of unknowns on both sides of the floor tonight.

One of the Illinois new guys is Jon Ekey, who I mentioned earlier. An interesting nugget from John Groce’s news conference on Wednesday was that Ekey grades out just about every day. He just does what he’s supposed to do.

Assistant coach Dustin Ford often tries to nit-pick and find little things Ekey does wrong, just to offer some form of criticism, but he usually comes up empty.

“That’s one of the perks from being around a long time,” Ekey said. “I’ve been around a few coaches now and being able to pick up things coaches want to do. You’re never perfect out there in every game, but I take pride in doing what I do well. I take pride in those things. You still have things to learn after every game.”

I’ve been saying since this summer that Ekey is more than a shooter and folks are beginning to see that. I saw him play a couple of times covering games at Illinois State and he’s got some bounce. He’s a good athlete and he’s brought intangibles to the team very similar to what Sam McLaurin brought last year. Imagine what last year would have been like without Sam McLaurin. The whole mood of the program might be a little different.

Speaking of Sam, today’s his birthday. Big Sam is 24 today. Hope he’s celebrating over in Finland.

Yesterday was freshman Austin Colbert’s birthday. The Virginia native turned 19 on Thursday.

We’ll be back with more closer to tip.

Alabama State at Illinois — (ESPN3) 7 p.m. tipoff

Good evening and welcome to the 2013-14 college basketball season, the second for John Groce and Co. here at Illinois. The last time we were together for a meaningful game, the hearts of the Illini and their fans were ripped out by a dreadful call in the loss to Miami at the NCAA tournament in Austin, Texas with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

Very few familiar faces remain from that Illinois team that finished 23-13, but I’m sure you’ve head all about that for the last seven-plus months.

With nine new faces on the roster — three of whom are not eligible to play this season after transferring — many outside the program consider this to be a rebuilding year.

Do not, I repeat, do not mention that to Tracy Abrams.

The returning starter at point guard was asked that question a few times at Big Ten media day in Chicago last week and he takes exception to it.

“I hate one question: ‘Is this a rebuilding year?’ No, we’re all competitors, why is this a rebuilding year?” Abrams said. “That’s one question…”

Abrams didn’t finish the thought with words, he just shook his head at the thought of this being a lost season for the Illini before it gets started.

Speaking of new guys, an old familiar face will finally take the floor for the Illini tonight. Champaign’s Rayvonte Rice, who once helped lead Centennial to a Class 3A state title, will make his Illinois debut tonight. After spending two years as a starter at Drake, Rice sat out after transferring to Illinois last season. We wrote about Rice in today’s News-Gazette and here online. Make sure you check that out.

I didn’t include this in the story, but at one point, many considered Rice to be a better football prospect than a basketball prospect. He took over as the starting running back at Centennial after Mikel Leshoure, now with the Detroit Lions, left to begin his collegiate career at Illinois. But Rice’s mom Rhonda told me when they made the decision that he would concentrate on hoops and leave the gridiron behind.

“He caught the ball in a game and then he did a basketball move and he ended up fumbling the ball,” Rhonda Rice said. “He got the ball and did a spin move around like he was dribbling the ball. He said ‘Mom, I was thinking about basketball.’ That’s when we decided after that season, that was it for football.”

I remember watching Rice back then and he was scary good at football. I think UCLA showed some interest along with many others I can’t remember right now. Rhonda Rice said she’s heard from some football people who say if the basketball thing doesn’t work out, Rayvonte could be like Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham and step in as an NFL tight end. That would be fun to see.

Two hours before the game, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby were going through a rigorous workout with assistant coach Jamall Walker. Darius Paul was on the other end getting work in with Dustin Ford. Those guys are sweating like crazy. That will be a common occurrence all season for the three guys sitting out.

Illinois is wearing orange on orange tonight. People like that combo.

I’m headed on the radio to do the pregame show with Steve Kelly. I’ll check back in soon with another update.

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