Rayvonte Rice: Welcome home
CHAMPAIGN — It's happening again. Rayvonte Rice has another decision to make.
Should he stay or should he go?
This decision concerns his wardrobe. It came easy this morning. Gorgeous Thursday, light class schedule, pickup games don't start till 6 p.m. So he went with the comfortable, baggy shorts. Now he's worn them to Prime Sole, a haven for sneaker addicts in northwest Champaign.
Or does he go with the sweatpants? For a 20-year-old with little more than class and basketball to consider — and class is out for the day — a wardrobe change would equate to dressing up. Rice is back in his hometown. He's 10 minutes from his high school, surrounded by friends in the shoe store where he held his first job at 15. His mom is the store manager.
This is home. Who dresses up when they're at home?
"Don't worry," Rhonda Rice reminds her son, "I've got the Illinois gear covered."
Mom's wearing a loud orange T-shirt that screams, "University of Illinois Mom." On the back is "Rice" with his number, 24.
Since he transferred from Drake to Illinois and must sit out the 2012-13 season, Rayvonte won't wear the actual Illini basketball jersey for another 14 months.
Mom's ready now.
He stays with the shorts, in part because Mom nods her approval. That's more than good enough for Rayvonte.
"It's like I always tell him — everything happens for a reason. You weren't supposed to be here at Illinois coming out of high school," Mom says. "Going to Drake, that was a detour for your life. You took a detour and now you're here, back home."
This whole decision thing is old hat for Rice, who, it seems, has made more of them, good and bad, than the average college athlete.
During an unprecedented prep career at Centennial, the 6-foot-4 guard/forward/bull scored more points (1,810) than anyone else who has played there. The Chargers won the Class 3A state championship in 2009, his junior year. It was an easy decision to have Mom keep his blingly state-title ring.
And his first college decision came easy. Rice made one recruiting visit — to Drake — and followed with one commitment — to Drake.
"Some people thought he might be too big, too slow, maybe an undersized 4 that was too short to be effective," says Kareem Richardson, the former Rantoul star who recruited Rice to Drake and now is an assistant at Louisville. "We told him he would be a big guard and he would be successful by being what he is, not what he's not."
In her son's two seasons at Drake, Rhonda Rice became a Des Moines fixture. For home games she would make the 6-hour drive, wear his jersey at the game, grab dinner with Rayvonte and return to Champaign around 4 a.m. And Rhonda was back at the shoe store at 9:30 that morning.
"Hey, Mom?" Rayvonte shouts across the store. "How many home games did you miss when I was at Drake?"
"One," she says, out of 31. That night a snowstorm buried eastern Iowa and shut down Interstate 80. She watched the game with a laptop connected to a flat-screen TV.
"I was so disappointed not to be there," she says.
After his second season at Drake, where he led the Bulldogs in scoring in consecutive years, Rice had another decision to make. He announced his plans to transfer. Marquette coach Buzz Williams flew into Des Moines to make his recruiting pitch. Xavier, a beacon for quality transfers in the past, also tried to schedule a visit with Rice.
But this, too, was an easy decision. Back home, a familiar coach had taken over the Illinois program he grew up following. As the coach at Ohio, John Groce had recruited Rice, and the new Illini coach badly wanted him at Illinois.
Rayvonte grew up a fan of Dee and Deron. Rhonda still has a photo of her son posing with Jerrance and Luther. Rayvonte attended UI camps as a student at Edison Middle School.
The decision to transfer home was easy. Instead of a 6-hour haul for home games, Rhonda now has a 6-minute commute, not to mention a new wardrobe of her own.
"Everybody's always asking, 'What's Rayvonte's mom going to do with all her Drake stuff?' " she says. "I'm just gonna put it in a box and save it. It was a chapter in his life."
Perhaps the toughest decision, at least for Rhonda, is how often to visit her son's apartment on campus. She's been only twice, saying it allows him a normal college life.
As Rayvonte heads to the front door at Prime Sole, he stops to kiss his mother. He's on his way to Ubben Basketball Complex for open gym with his Illini teammates.
That's where he's made his biggest impression on campus so far. If those new teammates had any reservations about taking a mid-career transfer, those doubts dissolved quickly. With top returning scorer Brandon Paul sidelined with a broken jaw, observers believe Rice was their most complete player for much of the offseason.
Stepping onto a scale last week, Rice checked in at 247 pounds, making him the thickest player on a roster that hasn't fared well against physical opposition.
"You would think a guy his size — as much as he attacks the rim and as big as he is — he would get a bunch of charges and be out of control," says assistant Paris Parham, who serves as Rice's position coach. "But he's in there like a ballerina most of the time. It doesn't look awkward for a guy his size. He makes it look easy, so to speak."
Though he wasn't at Illinois for Rice's recruitment, Parham has a unique perspective on the thick swingman. As an assistant at Illinois State, Parham was responsible for the scouting report on Drake. Illinois State also was involved with Rice's recruitment out of Centennial.
"What I think he has is the 'it' factor," Parham says. "In the Missouri Valley, he wouldn't be shooting a great three-point percentage, but if his team needed a three-point basket, he would make that shot. You had to guard him, especially if the game was on the line.
"I recall one game where we were up late in the game and we were playing great defense. And literally, for the last 10 possessions of the game, they gave him the ball and he went 1-on-5 and scored it seven out of the 10 times. I think we honestly switched four different guys on him. Then we had to switch to a zone in order to win that game."
Rice's reputation in the Illini locker room is that of a scorer. "He has a knack for putting the ball in the basket," Groce says.
His focus in workouts is a pull-up jumper while going to his right — "If he's going left, he's automatic," Parham says — and becoming more consistent with a three-point shot.
"For him, the challenge is more about shot selection," Parham says.
Groce also references Rice's ability to create steals. At Drake last season, he had 63, tops in the Valley. The Illini had only 162 steals, their fewest in a season since 1991-92.
"If he gets that three-point shot down, he's going to be really difficult to guard," Groce adds. "Then you can't give him room and he can — boom! — drive to the basket. That's where he's really good. We've got to get him more consistent with that shot. That's coaching. We've got to get him there."
Rice has a redshirt year to improve the areas that need refining. Coaches say his individual game-day workouts will be more strenuous than his teammates', simply because he won't be eligible to play in the games.
"I'm just going to trust the coaches as they work me out and make me better. I trust what they tell me," Rice says. "My focus right now is on making my teammates better since I can't play this year. That will help them and then I'll be ready the year I come back."
Until Rice produces at Illinois, the usual questions that face a midmajor transfer will linger. He's heard them. Transfers always do, and the question of whether a former midmajor standout can be effective in the Big Ten often turn out to be valid.
The Drake staff was one of the few that got it right the first time. Richardson, the lead recruiter on Rice, said he has "no doubt" Rice will be similarly effective in the Big Ten.
"I've seen him do it against every high-major, big (program) we played — Big Ten, Valley — it didn't matter to him," Richardson said. "Being a scorer and with what he does, you are who you are. I don't care if people might say he's too small (in height), it doesn't matter. He scores on people. Always has."
Rice says he's familiar with the doubts of his ability to play at a higher level.
"I hear about that. I really don't listen to it. I really like to let my game talk for myself," he says. "I get questioned on that — should I really be in the Big Ten and all that. But I really just let my game speak for itself. It's motivation."
Illinois has a minimal history with transfers. For comparison's sake, two of the more effective transfers had long-term success but were different types of players than Rice.
In Kenny Battle's final season at Northern Illinois, the future Illini great averaged 19.6 points. Battle averaged 15.6 points as a fourth-year junior at Illinois.
In Trent Meacham's first and only season at Dayton, he averaged 6.4 points and 2.7 assists. At Illinois, he developed into a double-digit scorer as a junior and senior.
In Sam Maniscalco's final full season at Bradley, he averaged 13.1 points on 46 percent shooting. Maniscalco was ineffective during the Big Ten season due to an ankle injury. But in five challenging nonconference games — wins against Richmond, Illinois State, Maryland, Gonzaga and St. Bonaventure — he averaged 14.4 points on 44 percent shooting.
"The first thing I thought of was, 'Whoa, he's really good,' " says Maniscalco, who has played in pickup games with Rice and the current Illini.
At Drake last season, Rice averaged 16.8 points per game, third in the Valley. He did so with pedestrian shooting percentages — 43.6 from the field, 24.1 percent from three — and the Illini are hopeful those numbers improve.
"With his body and the way he plays, because he's so big and physical, he won't have any problem in the Big Ten," Maniscalco says of Rice. "He's built for that kind of basketball. He's built like a linebacker."
An Illinois player hasn't been described in those terms for years. The Illini too often are the overpowered instead of the overpowering. Physically, the transition to the Big Ten figures to be a smooth one for Rice, which makes him an outlier in the transfer spectrum.
"I think Coach Groce, he likes that I'm a physical player," Rice says.
That comes, in part, from his football background. During his junior year at Centennial, Rice served as the fullback on the football team. He plowed running lanes for current Detroit Lions tailback Mikel Leshoure. Rice and Leshoure hung out last week when Leshoure was in C-U for his baby shower. Rhonda made T-shirts with the ultrasound of Mikel Jr. screenprinted on the front.
"Mikel, that's like my second son," says Rhonda Rice, who will attend Leshoure's season debut against the Tennessee Titans a week from today.
"I didn't mind blocking for Mikel at all. I liked it, actually," says Rice, who received football recruiting interest from Colorado and Iowa, among others. "My job was to make the holes and he would score the touchdowns."
"He's just so strong it makes him hard to guard," third-year junior Joseph Bertrand said after a summer workout.
It's clear Rice is talented enough to play the Big Ten. That, or his new teammates are not, since he led the Illini in scoring in an officiated scrimmage to close summer workouts.
Still, his success at Illinois figures to be determined by yet another decision: How will he apply himself during a redshirt year?
Back home, there figure to be more temptations around an old circle of friends, in a comfort zone that shouldn't be comfortable. Back home, he's operating in the spotlight, in charge of stopping a trend of highly regarded Champaign-area athletes that can't stay clear of trouble.
"I'm hanging out with a new group of guys. My teammates are a great group of guys," Rice says. "I'm getting used to them, getting used to how they play. And I'm just trying to do the right thing every day."
"Honestly, it's good he went to Drake," his mom says. "He wasn't mature enough to stay here right out of (high) school. You can see how he's grown up."
Rice's academic decision is to pursue a double-major in sociology and recreation, sport and tourism. He decided to work part-time as a greeter at O'Brien Auto Park in Urbana. He decided to return home, where the front door at his mom's shoe store is always open.