I'm a huge fan of The Journey and its indelible tales of Big Ten basketball players overcoming adversity, the triumphs of conference play, and Wisconsin players acting goofy.
But they have to stop showing these after Illinois games on Sunday. I don't think casual Big Ten fans are sitting through our basketball morass to catch the latest episode, and I certainly can't muster the engagement to watch after another one of our brickshows,
I missed the debut of the most recent Journey. And then I put it off for a few more days until catching up with it last night. It featured the Illini's own Rayvonte Rice and his winding road back to Champaign. The story was nice but hardly anything Illini fans didn't know already. Rice's weight loss was discussed, of course, which has morphed into something like an athlete-themed Biggest Loser spinoff. (No more recruiting players that could lose 30 pounds, Groce, for the sake of discourse during television broadcasts of our games).
There was only one part I took issue with: name-dropping Bruce Weber while describing the recruitment of Rayvonte during high school. We all know it's not an Illini party these days if we're not piling on the sins of Bruce. Bruce dug his grave and was fired, and we've moved on to a brighter future as a program. But in this instance, Bruce deserves little, if any, blame.
In the years A.D. (After Dee), Bruce reeled in players of a similar mold as Rayvonte. They were tough rebounders and defenders that garnered smaller acclaim in national recruiting rankings. Some could score, others weren't as adept. After several years of subpar Big Ten finishes and lowered expectations, it was clear these players weren't good enough for us. You needed to sign more talented players, we said to Bruce.
And with the help of Jerrance Howard, Bruce obliged. D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul came into the fold, but the 2010 class would be the feather in Bruce's cap. He signed a future McDonald's All-American after his freshman year of high school (Jereme Richmond). He signed the little brother of an Illini whose jersey hangs in the State Farm Center rafters (Crandall Head). Finally, he locked up a 7-footer with freakish athleticism (Meyers Leonard), beating out a growing list of suitors. That was it for the scholarships. The 2010 class had been locked up before of August of 2008.
Enter the 2008-2009 high school season, where Rayvonte, a 6-foot-2 small forward, emerged onto the scene and got buckets like a power forward. He willed his Champaign Centennial team to a state championship. He even outshone Jereme Richmond in a head-to-head game during their senior years at the then Assembly Hall. But Illinois never recruited him, never even offered a scholarship. Was Bruce blind?
Of course not. The 2010 class was locked up before Rayvonte's breakout junior season. There were no scholarships to be had. Other teams weren't exactly busting down the door to offer Rayvonte a scholarship, either. He received zero Big Ten offers. His best suitors were VCU and SLU. It appeared that many other schools had doubts about a 6-foot-2 small forward whose weight was ballooning. Rayvonte settled for Drake.
You know the rest. The 2010 class busted, mostly because Jereme was a headcase. Bruce went all-in on that class, and its failure mirrored Bruce's own failings as he went to the Mike Thomas Chopping Block.
But I hardly blame Bruce for the miss on Rayvonte, and you shouldn't either. Bruce finally did what we wanted him to do. Let's just be grateful that things eventually worked out with us and Rayvonte.
Editor's Note: Two scholarships were open for the 2010 class by the start of the season. Those openings were due to Stan Simpson transferring and Richard Semrau opting out of his scholarship. By the time those spots opened up, Rayvonte had already signed his Letter of Intent.