Rice’s injury pushes Illinois into uncharted waters against Maryland

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice readies himself for a set of technical free throws during the game against Oregon at United Center in Chicago on Dec. 13. Rice is expected to miss significant time due to fracture of his non-shooting hand.

Wednesday’s game between Illinois and No. 11 Maryland certainly has intrigue surrounding it, but not the kind Illini fans hoped for.

It will be the first game in a season and a half that Illinois will play without its star guard Rayvonte Rice. The senior suffered a broken left hand in practice Monday, and the Illini will have to soldier on without their best player for three-to-six weeks, according to ESPN.com.

Rice was averaging 17.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and shooting 48 percent from long range, leading the Illini in all three categories. His teammates and head coach John Groce will miss his production on the court, and Groce stressed a “next man up” mentality while awaiting Rice’s return.

Whenever injuries happen, a fan’s first reaction is usually to assess the injury’s impact on their favorite team in gladiator terms, rather than on a personal level. While Rice’s injury is likely to have a profound impact on Illinois’ season, I’d like to step back for a second and express some sympathy for Rice as a person.

He’s a local kid who spent two years at Drake before Groce offered him the chance to play for his hometown school. Rice has since exceeded expectations, and many times the Illini have hitched their wagons to the 6-foot-4, 230 pound bulldozer and let him carry them. He’s obviously worked extremely hard off the court to improve his body (the famous trim-down in his redshirt year) and his game (his jump shot is light-years better than it was at Drake). 

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Rice has never made the NCAA tournament, and many figured that he’d have a great chance to reach the Big Dance as a fifth-year senior on an improved Illini squad. However, through Illinois’ first 15 games, it seemed like its tournament hopes are in doubt once again with a 10-5 record.

Now, Rice’s injury has dealt those tourney hopes a potentially devastating blow. By no fault of his own, Rice may be forced to watch what could have been a special season go down the drain from the sidelines. 

And while Groce isn’t the type of coach to make excuses, you have to feel bad for Illinois’ head man in this scenario. He’s now lost three pieces (Rice to injury, senior point guard Tracy Abrams to a knee injury and forward Darius Paul due to off-court issues) of what was supposed to be a deep team in 2014-15. The injuries were certainly outside Groce’s control, and while he made the choice to suspend Paul for the entire season, it was likely a necessary move considering the situation.

I get that injuries, departures and unforeseen circumstances are a part of sports, but I think Groce needs to be cut some slack if this season tailspins. We’ll never know how a 2014-15 season with a fully available Rice, Abrams and Paul would have played out, but losing three major contributors is tough for any basketball coach and program to withstand. 

With Rice gone, it’s hard to know what to expect from the second half of the’ season. There’s no question guys like Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and even Leron Black will have to take on larger roles if the Illini want to have success. Aaron Cosby might be re-inserted in the starting lineup, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see point guard Jaylon Tate become a starter as well. To replace a player of Rice’s caliber, everyone on the roster must be prepared to pick up the slack.

Many fans are now writing off Illinois’ season as lost, and I agree that things could potentially get ugly if the team gives up or simply no longer has the firepower with its current lineup. But there is still a glimmer of hope.

While No. 11 Maryland will definitely be a huge challenge for a short-handed-on-short-notice Illini team, the schedule in the next several weeks is not terribly tough by Big Ten standards. Nebraska, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State and Rutgers are all beatable, and the Illini face those teams in order in the next four weeks. If the Illini can ride out the storm and steal some wins while awaiting Rice’s presumed late-season return, they’ll still have a shot at the NCAA tournament. 

One thing is for sure: We’ll know more about Illinois sans-Rice after Wednesday’s game with Maryland.

Ironically, Maryland lost its senior star Dez Wells for a month early this season to a wrist injury, and Wells is a similar player to Rice, in terms of size and production. Other Terps stepped up in Wells’ absence, with their only blemish on a 14-1 overall record coming at the hands of No. 3 Virginia.

Now Wells is back and averaging 14.9 points per game, with teammates Melo Trimble and Jake Layman averaging double figures as well. Maryland is a deep and solid team, and not an ideal opponent for an Illinois team that has only had bad news of late. With students still on break, State Farm Center not even close to being sold out and temperatures dipping well below zero Wednesday night, expect Illinois’ home court advantage to be minimal as well.

Right now it’s easy to feel bad for Rice, his teammates and Illini fans. But the Terps certainly won’t have any sympathy for Illinois come Wednesday night.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.