Rayvonte Rice back home at Illinois

Before Rayvonte Rice played college basketball, he was dressed in orange and blue. He loyally went to Illinois basketball games; he remembers watching an Illinois team led by Cory Bradford win back-to-back Big Ten titles. He was in the stands to watch the magical 2004-05 season highlighted by Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head.

The Champaign native always dreamed of playing basketball at his hometown university, but Illinois head coach Bruce Weber never offered Rice a scholarship. And, after his senior year of basketball at Centennial High School was over, he went to play for Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

From Day One at Drake, Rice was the best player on the Bulldogs. During his freshman year, he led the team in scoring (13.8 points per game), rebounding (4.8), blocks (.8) and steals (1.4). The next year, he stepped up his game even more, leading the Missouri Valley in steals and finishing third in scoring and minutes. As a sophomore, he was dominating the league.

But when new Illinois head coach John Groce offered Rice an opportunity to come home, he accepted.

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Rice was never known for being a skinny player, but when he arrived on campus, he weighed 267 pounds and had 12.3 percent body fat. At 6-foot-4, he was the heaviest player on the team, heavier than all of the post players by at least 20 pounds.

So Groce immediately gave him a task: diet.

And diet he did. Rice cut out all sorts of foods. He avoided his mother’s cooking, even his favorite macaroni that had “too many cheeses.” This task was all the more difficult since he visited his mother at least once or twice a week since moving back to Champaign.

Rice now checks in at 235 pounds and 5 percent body fat. He’s by no means a small player, but he’s fit.

“Ray Rice has been a poster child for the area of strength and conditioning in our program, whether it’s been in body fat or strength numbers or conditioning numbers,” Groce said.

In addition to losing 36 pounds, Rice used his year off to learn two positions in Groce’s system, refine his outside shot and become more versatile.

“Ray Rice, to be honest with you, could play four positions,” Groce said. “He can play multiple positions defensively. He can play multiple positions offensively. I think Ray’s gift is that he’s very, very versatile.”

Junior center Nnanna Egwu, Rice’s roommate, agrees.

“He’s a rare breed,” Egwu said. “Ray is Ray. Ray dominates. Ray attacks the basket. He’s gotten a lot better with his shot. He’s become a lot better leader. His effort level is amazing. He works hard every practice. He brings a lot of energy to every practice and every game.”

For the past year, practices have been Ray’s games, and Groce has liked what he’s seen.

“I’ve been doing it now 19, going on 20 years, I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy who’s sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides in the year that he did when he was out,” Groce said. “He understood that that was going to pay off for him when he became eligible to play.”

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Rice will finally suit up for the Illini in a regular season contest Friday against Alabama State. His body of work since transferring to Illinois will likely result in a spot in the starting lineup next to Egwu, Tracy Abrams, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand.

At 7 p.m., he will stand on the floor under the banners of the jerseys of his childhood idols.

And when the ball is tipped, the three-mile journey from Centennial High School to State Farm Center will finally be complete.

And a childhood dream will come true.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.