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April 27, 2012

Ravonte Rice adds scoring punch

I loved Rayvonte Rice, the recruit. Like most, I thought the burly 6-foot-3 wing would be a great fit at a mid-major, but I also thought he could overcome some of his weaknesses (he's a classic "tweener" who's strong in the lane but doesn't shoot a high percentage from the outside) with his toughness and gamesmanship, otherwise known as intangibles.

I liked Rice, who was the driving force behind Champaign Centennial's Class 3A state championship in 2009, more than Illinois recruit Crandall Head. Luther's little brother, who transferred after three semesters at Illinois, had more athleticism and more speed, and yes, more of that awful 'P' word: potential. But Rice was and is simply a better basketball player.

We know what Rice is: a scorer (15.4 points per game during his first two seasons at Drake), an attacker (averaged 5.6 free throw attempts per game), a perimeter rebounder (5.3 rebounds) and a gamer. Last time I checked, Illinois - and almost every other team in the country - is in need of a player with those traits.

Illinois has more immediate needs at point guard and in the post. But after Michael Orris received a release from his letter of intent opening a third available scholarship, Illinois was wise to pursue and receive a commitment from Rice, as first reported by The News-Gazette's Paul Klee.

Compared to Rice, no late additions to the Class of 2012 would have been worthwhile. Groce could add a point guard to the mix to back up Tracy Abrams. But why spend a scholarship on an inferior talent for a one-year need (2013 point guard Jalen James, a top-100 prospect) already is committed)?

Illinois assistant Isaac Chew said Tuesday the coaches "must prepare ourselves long-term."

Illinois could hold onto the scholarships - Groce compares them to "gold" - for the loaded 2013 and 2014 classes. But even with Rice and commits James and Malcolm Hill, the Illini still have four scholarships to divvy between the two classes. Attrition (six players on schedule to leave the program in 2015 will compete for playing time) could add more spots.

Rice, a proven commodity, must sit out next year due to transfer rules. But when he returns to the court for his final two years of eligibility, Illinois will just be losing returning leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to graduation. Rice will join and complement a roster that will feature juniors Abrams and Nnanna Egwu and Myke Henry - talented but still unproven commodities - and lone senior Joseph Bertrand.

The beauty is that while Rice will help in the long term - for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons - he'll also provide an immediate impact when he reaches the court. That will lessen pressure on freshmen, like Hill, to be relied on as immediate scorers.

Adding Rice has nothing to do with his Champaign roots. Adding Rice has everything to do with his skill at hoops. His attacking approach fits Groce's style. He has the type of toughness that Illinois has lacked the past four seasons.

When he was in high school, I had few doubts that Rice would be a good mid-major player. Now, I have very few questions the Rice will be a productive Big Ten player. Those aren't always easy to find on the recruiting trail. Illinois pounced at the opportunity.

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM

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