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The Ballad of Rayvonte Rice

Three years ago, the Champaign product wasn't even offered by the Illini. Now, he's the leading scorer and star player for Illinois. How did this happen?

Ethan Miller

At long last, Rayvonte Rice finally gets to be the hometown hero. But he didn't take the easiest path to get there. After spending two years at Drake, Rice triumphantly returned home and hasn't disappointed. Let's look at where he's been, and where he can take this Illinois team.

Rice grew up in Champaign, and has deep connections to Illinois. His cousin is former Illini star running back Mikel Leshoure, so he knew what being the "hometown hero" entails. At Centennial High School (only 7 minutes away from Assembly Hall), Rice dominated. In his junior year, his team won the state title, and he earned the MVP award of the tournament due to his 21 point outburst in the title game. But his senior year was his best by far. He was named the 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Illinois, was a unanimous first-team All-state choice by the AP, and was the runner-up for Mr. Basketball that year. Apparently, all that wasn't enough for then-coach Bruce Weber. Rice did not receive a scholarship offer from the Illini, and went to Drake instead. Obviously, that gave Rice some major motivation to prove that he belonged with the best of college basketball.

"That fueled me," he said of being passed up by Illinois. "Every time I played a guy (committed to Illinois) I wanted to do well. It was a motivating factor."

At Drake, Rice immediately became the focal point of their offense. He averaged 30 minutes a game as a freshman, and made the most of them. He led the Bulldogs in scoring, rebounding, blocks, steals and free throws in 2010-11. His shooting was a little rough that year, especially from behind the arc, but he's never been a spot-up jump shooter who's lethal from three. He uses his physicality to body people down low, getting to the foul line in the process. He was honored with a position on the Missouri Valley Conference's All-Freshman team.

He started every game as a sophomore, taking on a huge load of the work that year. His most notable game was during a triple-OT thrilling victory over Wichita State, where he dropped 19 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and 4 blocks. That's a wonderful stat line, but he shot quite poorly that game (5-23 from the field, 0-5 from three). That's a microcosm of his career at Drake: he was the team star that stuffed the stat sheet each night, but his poor shooting in big spots occasionally put his team in trouble.

After deciding to transfer, Illini coach John Groce jumped all over him. Interestingly, Groce recruited (and offered!) him when he was the coach of Ohio, so he knew all about Rice's potential as a scorer and a star. After sitting out last year, Rice has taken this Illinois team to new heights so far. Unlike at Drake, Rice is shooting much better. He's elevated all of his shooting percentages, now shooting 48% from the field, 31% from three, and 75% from the line. Those numbers don't blow you away, but those improvements prove how complete his offensive game as become this season.

While he's looked solid in each game thus far, his effort in the comeback win over UNLV stands out. Rice went for 25 points, 10 boards, and 4 steals, but none of his points were more important than his clutch go-ahead layup with 27 seconds remaining. But he was equally clutch on the defensive end. He anchored an Illini defense that didn't allow a basket after the 4:16 mark, and made a strong defensive play on UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones' late layup attempt. Rice had the hot hand late, and his teammates found him. It's very important that his teammates trust a newcomer like him, and he's absolutely earned their trust so far.

So how far can Rice take this team? That will depend on if Rice can keep up his intense play. 31 minutes a game will catch up to you, especially in an insanely physical conference like the Big Ten. He's going to face some very tough tests come conference play, but his poise and experience should prove valuable to this dangerous Illini team. If they sneak into the tournament, they have a steady hand to lead them late in the game.

Welcome home, Rayvonte. We're glad to have you.