CHAMPAIGN — Most Illinois fans are looking ahead to Friday. That’s when five-star Chicago big man Cliff Alexander is scheduled to make his college decision.
The 6-foot-9 power forward is choosing between Illinois, DePaul, Kansas and Memphis.
Late in Illinois’ 64-52 win against Valparaiso on Wednesday at State Farm Center, the Orange Krush student section began chanting, “We want Cliff! We want Cliff!”
Against the Crusaders’ big, physical frontline, the Illini could have used the bruising power forward. But the guys currently wearing the Illinois uniform made enough plays when it counted to help John Groce’s club move to 3-0 with its third straight double-digit victory.
“Sometimes that’s the way it is. We had to grind that one out. The game wasn’t necessarily at the pace we want. (We want to) play as fast as possible,” Groce said.
Credit the zone defense Valparaiso (2-1) played most of the game for that. Despite shooting 31.8 percent from the floor (21 for 66), the Illini found a way to pull away in the end.
Rayvonte Rice led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Joseph Bertrand added 14 points and six boards to lead four Illini in double figures.
“I thought Ray made big plays late in the game. Ray was all over the (offensive) glass with three,” Groce said.
Jon Ekey, the transfer from Illinois State, scored six points, but he pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass.
For his efforts, the 6-foot-7 fifth-year senior received two stitches in his head after the game.
“I think Ray got me. He got me pretty hard; that’s all right,” Ekey said.
“He’s so valuable. (Wednesday night) I played him at the 3, 4 and 5,” Groce said of Ekey. “He gets us extra possessions. He does a lot of things that show up on the stat sheet ... but he does a lot of things that don’t, very reminiscent of (Sam) McLaurin from an intangibles perspective. I’m so thankful that we have him.”
Ekey’s frontcourt mate, Nnanna Egwu, scored 10 points and blocked three shots before fouling out in 24 minutes, while Tracy Abrams added 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.
After eight straight days of having either practice or a game, the Illini will take today off before getting back to work Friday in preparation for Sunday’s game against Bradley.
“That’s the longest stint we’ve had,” Groce said. “These guys will probably tell you they’re looking forward to that. I always tell them to eat, sleep, hydrate and study.”
While they’re doing that, all the attention from the Orange Krush and the Illinois fan base will be focused squarely on Chicago and Alexander’s decision. By the time Sunday’s game tips, they’ll know one way or another if they got Cliff.