CHAMPAIGN — Rayvonte Rice was a student at Edison Middle School when he got one of his first brushes with Illini basketball celebrity.
Rayvonte was in eighth grade, his mom said. Rhonda Rice managed a local fast-food restaurant not far from the Illinois campus.
"I had Niro's Gyros at the time that Deron (Williams) and Dee (Brown) were there," she said. "They would come in and eat. He would see them all the time."
Rayvonte Rice gave his own oral commitment to the Illinois program Wednesday. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound guard is transferring from Drake University and represents the first recruit of the John Groce era at Illinois.
"With a new coach I just see it as a new opportunity. It's a fresh start for me," Rice said by phone from Des Moines, Iowa. "And he recruited me at Ohio so I knew him."
Rice would be eligible for the 2013-14 season after sitting out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Rice said he would return to C-U on May 12 and would attend the summer session in June.
"I don't mind (sitting out one season)," he said. "I think it will give me a chance to get better and work on what I need to work on."
After playing for the Edison Comets, Rice went on to a banner career at Centennial.
He remains the leading scorer in C-U boys' basketball history and averaged 23.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 2.9 steals as a senior at Centennial. He holds the school's single-season record for points (814) and the career record in scoring (1,810 points).
He seems to fit the profile of a Groce-type player — attack-minded on offense (he led Drake in scoring as a freshman and sophomore) and disruptive on defense (he led the MVC in steals as a sophomore). He also plays with an edge, something that's been missing on the UI roster.
"I believe Groce can take him to that next level," Rhonda Rice said.
As a sophomore at Drake, Rice averaged 16.5 points (third in the MVC) and 5.8 rebounds (12th). He shot 43.6 percent from the field and 24.1 percent on three-pointers.
Asked why he left Drake, Rice said, "I just felt like there were a lot of changes going on. I didn't really feel comfortable. I was going to leave last year, but I just decided to give it one more season."
This type of move, however, comes with a risk. Returning home also means convening with boyhood friends. Running with the right crowd — particularly in a redshirt year — will be paramount. Rice was suspended for two games after he was charged with misdemeanor theft in West Des Moines in 2011. He and a teammate stole socks from a sporting goods store.
Rice was only lightly recruited by Illinois out of Centennial. The Illini had a stockpile of wings at the time, and he committed to Drake prior to an impressive senior season. His mom said Rice took only one campus visit — to Drake — before committing to the MVC program.
"I didn't want to rush into it (a second time). I didn't want to do that again," Rice said of his second recruitment. "That's why I wanted to (visit Illinois last weekend), to get a feel for it. It was different. I had never really been on Illinois' campus like that before."
Rice said he chose Illinois over Xavier. He was scheduled to visit Marquette this coming weekend but called coach Buzz Williams and canceled the visit. Memphis was also in the mix.
Rice said he grew up an Illinois fan. There still is a photo of Rayvonte with former Illini player and assistant Jerrance Howard in their Champaign home.
"I just think it's coincidence that he grew up watching all of them and now he's going to be playing there at Illinois, too," Rhonda said.
Rayvonte Rice last played at the Assembly Hall in 2009. He had a game-high 32 points in Centennial's 71-55 win against Jereme Richmond and Waukegan in the Shootout at the Hall.
"I went to all the (Illinois) games when I was younger," Rice said.
Rice played three varsity seasons at Centennial. The Chargers went 84-12 in that time. Centennial also won the 2009 IHSA Class 3A state championship and featured four players who earned Division I scholarships: Rice, Jeff Johnson (Eastern Kentucky), James Kinney Jr. (Ohio/Eastern Utah/San Jose State) and Josh Piper (Eastern Illinois).
Previously, there have been 12 players who attended high school in Champaign-Urbana before going on to earn a basketball letter at Illinois, according to records.
There is precedent for Rice's return to C-U. The most recent example was fellow Centennial product Trent Meacham, who transferred to Illinois from Dayton.
"It's got to be special for him to represent Champaign and the Illini," Meacham said Wednesday from France, where he's playing professionally. "For myself, it was always a dream to put on that orange-and-blue uniform. Going away for school and then returning home also gave me even more pride for the university and the community."
Rayvonte Rice won’t be the first C-U product to play basketball at Illinois. A look at players who earned varsity letters:
NAME HIGH SCHOOL
Ted Beach Champaign
P.J. Bowman Centennial
Bubba Chisholm Central
Ken Ferdinand Urbana
Rod Fletcher Champaign
David Freeman Central
Fred Green Urbana
Steve Holdren Centennial
Nate Mast Central
Robert McKay Champaign
Trent Meacham Centennial
Bob Shapland Central