Tate: Rayvonte Rice's future is basketball

Tate: Rayvonte Rice's future is basketball

Read the transcripts from Loren's Monday chat here

Check out our podcast from Saturday's Centennial celebration here

Check out video of the Welcome Home Party here

CHAMPAIGN – The first time these eyes saw Rayvonte Rice, he was a blockbuster sophomore playing defensive end for Mike McDonnell's Centennial Chargers.

When All-State running back Mikel Leshoure needed a rest, Rice stepped in and ran Centennial's off-tackle blasts with little or no loss in production. There he was, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and not only fast but able to shake and bake. If there was ever a surefire Big Ten football prospect as a sophomore, Rice was it. He averaged 8.6 yards on 66 carries, bettering Leshoure's senior mark of 6.5 yards per carry.

The name was perfect. But no, despite erroneous rumors, he's not related to UI All-American Simeon Rice. Rayvonte's father resides in Chicago, and his mother is Rhonda Rice, who matriculated from Elgin to play two seasons of basketball at Parkland College and take up residence here.

So basketball was deep in his bones, and gradually stole his heart away. Midway through his junior football season, as his knees took a battering and the 4-5 Charger footballers failed for a second time to make the playoffs, he began to think about concentrating on one sport: basketball. And when he and Class 3A All-Stater James Kinney led Centennial to the state championship Saturday, he confirmed what insiders already knew: Rice will drop football as a senior and concentrate on defending the basketball title and earning a Division I scholarship.

At 6-3, he is not the ideal size, and some call him a "tweener" who must play guard in a football player's body. But Rice mixes three-point range with burrowing inside moves, and he's determined to prove wrong those who say he "doesn't have a position." He projected: "I see myself as a combo guard who can take smaller guards low."

Return to glory

Rice was a clutch-playing sensation in Centennial's magical tournament run. After a hard-fought 70-61 win against Champaign Central in the regional final, Rice used his instincts and quick hands for late-game steals in five extraordinary finishes with Springfield Southeast 73-69, Lincoln 49-45, Belleville Althoff 65-60, North Lawndale 66-65 and Oswego 61-59. Multiple lead changes marked those five thrillers, and his putback against North Lawndale was the biggest basket in Centennial history. He was his team's dominant rebounder and scored 108 points in the last six.

"We work on defense," he said, "and I was able to get steals at the end of five straight games."

His final piece of larceny came inside the last three seconds Saturday, and he slung the ball high in the air to ignite the celebration. He smiled: "It was crazy."

On Sunday, with the cheers still ringing in his ears, he was the only downstater to join Jereme Richmond, Lenzelle Smith and a "loaded" Rising Star AAU team in Deerfield for a practice and a meeting with Lakers star Kobe Bryant and the Nike sponsors of that team.

"We'll play 30 or 40 games beginning in April and going through the summer," he said Sunday. "It's a lot more difficult than high school. All the teams have top (hand-picked) athletes at every position."

Then next season, Rice and 6-8 Jeff Johnson will form the nucleus for another strong Tim Lavin team.

"We'll miss James Kinney," Rice said. "He always found the open man. I don't know how he did it but he did. We need new guards to step up, guys like Lawrence Kinney (James' brother) and Jimmie McDonald. We'll be counting on them."

And on the gridiron, McDonnell will look to an upcoming junior, Shaquille Taylor, to fill a ball-carrying position that would have featured the area's best football prospect, if he elected to play.

No 'I' in team

When it is pointed out that Whitney Young won the "big school" title, remember this: Centennial defeated a comparable (to Young) team, North Lawndale, in the semifinal. But few champions have demonstrated more physical maturity, more depth and better teamwork than Young, and this was particularly evident in the title-game defeat of a Waukegan team that evolved into a one-on-one operation initiated by whoever happened to have the ball. In the halfcourt, Waukegan did virtually no setup passing.

Richmond is the state's most prolific player as a junior but, in the Peoria environment Saturday, and with Young's rugged team passing more effectively, Marcus Jordan deserved all the accolades heaped on him.

Not always well utilized, though he was spectacular in Friday's semi, Richmond has another year to mature after appearing easily frustrated and sometimes lacking in hustle. With long arms and stunning reactions, he reminds of Darius Miles, the East St. Louis star who turned pro out of high school in 2000. Richmond's perimeter shot is excellent, his handle and outlet passes off rebounds are special, and he'll fit perfectly as a small forward at Illinois in 2011 ... fit, that is, if he improves his body language and meets Weber's standards on defense. After further evaluation, and assuming normal development, he projects as a two-and-out collegian who'll make millions in the NBA.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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jturner wrote on March 23, 2009 at 6:03 pm

While I recognize that defense is important and all have to play it to some level, Bruce needs to have somewhat flexible standards such that offensive excellence has a chance to get on the floor even if they aren't Chester.