Doubts and some disappointment reverberated in the halls when Rayvonte Rice dropped football after his junior year at Centennial High School.
Quick and powerful, he was a “can’t miss” college prospect as a defensive end and fullback. But Ray had a dream, and it was to play basketball at the University of Illinois.
Through the detours — two years at Drake plus a redshirt season — and multiple 2014 potholes, he’s living that dream ... even if some fans feel the team’s 2-win, 10-loss slide has turned it into a nightmare season.
“We’ve been close in most of our games, and our two recent wins proved to fans that we haven’t given up. We’re going to play our best basketball in Season 3, as coach calls it,” Rice said Tuesday.
“It’s great to play in front of family and friends, and to be with this coaching staff. It’s a great staff. They believe in all the players.”
Hitting the wall
OK, sounds like all peaches and cream. And perhaps it was for the first 16 double-digit games. But scheming rivals, double-teams and shot blockers are targeting the Illini scoring leader, and some say Rice needs to rethink his shot attempts (12.7 per game). He is re-evaluating.
“I need to work on some things, to polish areas of ball-handling and find teammates when they’re open. Guys as tall as trees are playing my drive. Maybe I should shoot more jumpers instead of trying to get all the way to the rim,” he said.
“So I need to locate teammates and believe in them to knock down shots ... like Kendrick (Nunn) did in the two games we won. Kendrick and Malcolm (Hill) are playing great, and everybody is contributing.”
Fact is, Rice scored just nine and six points in wins at Penn State and Minnesota, the only UI victories since early January. Nunn had 19 and 19. Rice seems to be OK with it.
“This league does more in-depth scouting,” he said. “When I was at Drake, teams might know your skill sets but may not have the ability to stop you. This is a good transition for me. There are bigger, stronger, faster guys here. It’s a much tougher league.”
Another change is the defensive emphasis.
“I didn’t cover the best perimeter opponent at Drake. Coach challenged me to take on the best perimeter player, and I love the challenge. I did that some at Centennial, but not at Drake.”
Carrying the load
John Groce recognizes the grueling nature of Rice’s season, having piled on the minutes until Rice was slowed by a back injury Jan. 12 at Northwestern. There’s no way of measuring it, but some observers say Rice doesn’t have the same explosion on his drives as he did earlier.
“We have ridden him like a horse ... rebounding, scoring, defending ... so our concern now is to make sure we take care of his body. It’s a long season and he has played a lot of minutes, much of it with defenses geared toward him.”
Groce said the new lineup with Nunn (Big Ten Freshman of the Week) and Hill has opened the floor and alleviated the strain on Rice to score.
Rice’s statistics are similar to his sophomore season at Drake. Despite a scoreless game at Ohio State and some slippage, he checks in at No. 8 on the Big Ten scoring list at 16.2 (16.8 at Drake in 2012) while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 33.3 from the arc.
Side note: Give or take a few pounds, Rice transferred from Drake and improved when he dropped 25 pounds from 260 to 235. Nebraska’s Terran Petteway transferred from Texas Tech, where he averaged 3.3 points as a freshman, and leads the Big Ten in scoring after adding 20 pounds to 209.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.