CHAMPAIGN — So many numbers have been thrown about to quantify the improvements Rayvonte Rice has made since transferring to Illinois from Drake.
The 6-foot-4 guard has dropped from 265 pounds to 235. He cut his body fat from 12.7 percent to 6.1. His weightroom performance — pounds and reps — has improved, too.
But here’s the number he’s most proud of — and quick to boast about while flashing that self-assured grin he’s worn regularly since leading Centennial to a state title four years ago: 3.8. It represents the sociology major’s grade-point average last semester.
“I’m real happy about that,” Rice said last week prior to an individual workout at Ubben Basketball Complex. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how important academics are. Having a good GPA, graduating, that’s something that will always be with you. That’s real important to me.”
Academically and athletically, Rice is in a good place.
Some wondered when the Champaign native decided to use the final two years of his college eligibility at the hometown school if it would be in his best interest. They wondered how old friends, distractions and so much free time during a sit-out year would come into play.
No more wondering.
Rice is in the best shape of his life, he put together his finest semester in the classroom and he enters the summer portion of the Illinois practice schedule with lofty expectations for the upcoming season, one which will see him play a prominent role for John Groce’s club.
“That just shows his maturity. He could have made some different choices, and he had choices to make when we were on the road like ‘Do I party? Do I hang out at home?’ He actually did a great job of working on his game and working in the classroom,” said Illinois assistant Paris Parham, Rice’s position coach. “It was all on him. It was self-based. He showed from the start that he was a self-starter and was willing to work. He’s done such a good job.”
Rice had such a good sit-out year that Groce called it the best he’s witnessed in his 19 years of coaching at the college level. Despite not playing in any games because of NCAA transfer rules, the former Missouri Valley All-Newcomer team pick was named one of Illinois’ three most-improved players at the season-ending banquet.
“It surprised me, kind of caught me off guard. I thought it was going to be Brandon (Paul) or D.J. (Richardson) or one of those guys,” said Rice, who shared the award with starters Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. “But the fact that the coaches noticed the work I put in and all the work they put me through was a great motivator. It makes you not want to stop and to just keep getting better.”
That’s not to say the year was a smooth ride for Rice. The watching and waiting was difficult, Rice relegated to the bench during home games and his couch for the road games in which he couldn’t provide his own transportation to attend.
The loss to Miami in the NCAA tournament was especially tough to stomach for him.
“I was just yelling at the TV,” he said. “That was tough. They all were tough. It’s tough to watch those guys you go to work with every day and not being able to do anything to help.”
Rice left Drake only 17 points shy of 1,000 in his college career.
“The coaches’ words of wisdom. They just kept telling me my time would come,” he said. “Just watching my teammates out there and knowing my time was going to come soon kind of got me through some of those tough times.”
The Illinois coaching staff is counting on Rice to pass down his knowledge to those who will go through a similar process this year. Darius Paul and Aaron Cosby will sit out after transferring from Western Michigan and Seton Hall, respectively. Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks has applied for immediate eligibility, but there’s a chance he might be sidelined, too.
“I don’t know how many times a team has given Most Improved to a guy who didn’t play based on what he did in practice and workouts, but that should give (the transfers) something to work toward. He’s set the bar pretty high for those guys,” Parham said. “But knowing those guys through recruiting them and watching them these first two weeks, they’re going to be just fine because they’re good kids who are willing to work.”
A proven scorer at Drake — he averaged better than 15 points per game in two seasons — Rice is eager to prove his game can translate to the Big Ten.
He’s spent the last year working on his handle and his three-point shooting. The weight loss will give him the ability to keep up on the defensive end with quicker guards.
“I think the coaches have designed some great drills to put me through for me to compete at a high level against guards we’re going to see in this league,” Rice said. “I’m very excited. I’ve always tried my best to be a competitor. I’ve always wanted to go out and just win. I hate losing. It happens, but I just can’t wait to go out there and compete and to show what Illinois basketball is all about, what Coach Groce is all about and our whole staff is about. I’m just ready to hoop.”