Back in February of 2010, long-time Champaign News Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote the following about Rayvonte Rice after the home-town hero from Champaign Centennial High School elected to take his talents to Des Moines, Iowa.
"Most young preps overrate themselves. But in this case, Centennial's 6-foot-3 blockbuster has undersold himself in signing with Drake University over a Big Ten school like, say ... Illinois. …Congratulations go to Drake coach Mark Phelps. While others were wondering what position Rice might play - he's been called a "tweener" - Phelps landed the real deal. Rice plays his own position. It's called 'winner.'"
Tate had a point. A good one. Rice was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois over such high school phenoms as Jereme Richmond, Wayne Blackshear, Lenzelle Smith, and Chasson Randle - all high major signees. As a junior, Rice led Centennial to a 32-1 record and IHSA Class 3A state championship. Rice not only undersold himself, but a few coaches missed the boat as well.
But that's water under the bridge. As the Illini prepare to kick off the 2013-14 basketball season on Saturday with Illini Street Jam in campus town, Rice will indeed don the orange and blue. Finally. He transferred to Illinois after his sophomore season at Drake and is ready to go after the mandatory year off.
Expect Rice to get a rousing welcome when he's introduced to the fans Saturday night.
"There's nothing better than playing for the team that you watched growing up," Rice said. "You dream about playing for them, and there's nothing like it. I have friends and family here, and just love playing here for Coach Groce and for my hometown."
The event on Saturday is another chance to create some buzz for a program that Groce has rolling on the recruiting trail this off season. He added top 50 players Leron Black and Quentin Snider to a 2014 class that already included another local player in forward Michael Finke.
Illini Street Jam will be held at the intersection of Green St. and Wright St. According to the press release, "the festivities will include player introductions, fan interactive games and competitions." Probably more than anything, Street Jam is a recruiting tool - and according to Rice, few are better at selling their product that John Groce.
"Our program is going in the right direction," Rice said. "Coach Groce is doing a great job recruiting. He is all about doing things the right way. He isn't going to settle for anything less. All the guys bought in from day one, even when they were being recruited."
John Groce is a meticulous planner. And unlike some of us who's New Year's resolutions are a distant memory by February 1st, he has stick-to-it-ness. There was a plan for Rice from day one upon his arrival at Illinois. His sit out year was going to involve very little sitting.
"You know when you are going to come in here, you are going to work." Rice said.
And that's what Rice did during his year off. He worked - on his body and on his game. Groce is on record as saying that Rice had the best sit-out year that he has witnessed as a basketball coach.
"The coaches had a good plan put together for me," Rice said. "I went on a good diet and they had me on a great strength plan lifting and running outside of practice. It was tough not being out there playing. But I did what I could. I learned the system and made myself better. I'm just glad this year is finally here."
Rice is will be hardly recognizable to fans who saw him play at Centennial, or even at Drake. A year working with basketball strength coach Mike Basgier has him in the best shape of his career.
Once a two-sport star - Rice also played football at Centennial - he looks more like a basketball player now. A chiseled physique has increased his quickness, which Rice says will help him guard the "2's" in the open court.
"I was 267 when I came in, and I'm at 233 now," Rice said. "I feel great. I feel like my strength coaches have prepared me to guard quicker players that I'm going to compete against in the Big Ten."
Groce's plan for Rice obviously also involved improving his basketball skills, with an emphasis on developing the ability to consistently knock down perimeter shots. He put points on the board (16.8 ppg) at Drake, but Rice shot just 27-112 (.241) from 3-point range during his sophomore season.
Part of the inventory of equipment at the Ubben basketball facility is a shooting practice machine called the gun, a tool Groce has made the most of. The machine allows players to work on their shooting on their own, and its counts the number of made shots.
Illinois needs scorers in what looks to be a transition year for the Illini. Rice knows he has to improve his jumper if he's to have the same success offensively in the more competitive Big Ten as he did in the MVC.
"My shot is coming along great," Rice said. "Coach Groce challenged me to make 15,000 three pointers on the gun last year during the season outside of practice. He challenged me again to make 11,000 this summer. Coach designed that for me, and it's working out really well."
Defining his role
For his part, Rice wants to be versatile and do whatever it takes to get W's. A more defined role should emerge early in the 2013-14 season, but for now Rice is working on all aspects of his game.
"If they need me to score, I'm going to score," Rice said. "If they need me to pass or rebound, that's what I'm going to do. Coach has me listed as a 2 or a 3. My roll on the team is going to be to do whatever my team needs me to do."
Another role for Rice is to help mentor two other transfers who are sitting out this upcoming season. Forward Darius Paul (Western Michigan) and guard Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) are in the same position that Rice was at this time last year.
Rice credits the staff for his own transformation, and says Paul and Cosby just need to trust in Groce and follow the plan that he has laid out for them.
"Coach tells them all the time that they need to have a good sit out year," Rice said. "He uses me as kind of the foundation for them. They just need to stay in the gym and listen to the coaches. They know what they're doing. We have a great coaching staff here, and a great strength and conditioning staff."
Player development is a big part the program, and Groce has plenty of new talent on hand to work with. The 5-man freshman class is getting a crash course in how to prepare themselves physically and mentally for major college basketball.
According to Rice, each newbie - Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate, and Austin Colbert - has different things they need to work on, and the staff tailors workouts to meet specific individual needs (Morgan lost weight, Tate and Colbert are getting stronger, etc.)
Even with the nine newcomers in all, Rice said the aim is to max out their talent and make it back to the NCAA Tournament next March.
"Our main focus is just getting better every day and coming together as a team," Rice said. "We have a lot of new guys, but there are no excuses. If we do what we need to do, we will be good."
If Rice had enrolled at Illinois initially he would be entering his senior season. As it is, he has two years of eligibility remaining on a team that continues to add talent. Tate was right…Illinois should have given Rice a harder look coming out of high school. But it all worked out pretty well in the end.