When I wrote my Season in Review piece for Kendrick Nunn, my thoughts were focused on one thing: the future.
I briefly considered Kendrick's shooting percentages from this year, but it was only to estimate how proficient he could be in the coming seasons. I went over his playmaking ability and free throw shooting, but only in an effort to use those skills more as he grows older. Kendrick Nunn is the future of the Fighting Illini program. Rayvonte Rice? He's the present.
We know what Rayvonte is at this point, and I don't expect him to change. He is the clear offensive leader of the team-- playing the most minutes, using the most possessions, and scoring the most points-- and he'll probably lead in all three of those categories again in 2015.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rayvonte's first year playing for the Illini was how well he matched the numbers he put up at Drake.Check out Rice's Per-40 numbers from each of his three college seasons:
In a far superior conference, Rayvonte was able to maintain a similar performance in terms of counting statistics-- points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Even more encouraging, his efficiency actually improved with the move to the Big Ten. Rayvonte boasted both an improved effective field goal percentage and offensive rating in his third college season.
As I mentioned in my Hoops By The Numbers piece, Rice's Big Ten struggles were perhaps a bit exaggerated, but they did exist. He shot much less efficiently from the field in conference play, likely a result of the extra length that Big Ten teams utilize to challenge shots. Rice had a lot more trouble getting open looks at the rim, leading him to resort to his very "meh" jumper. Hopefully, this can be largely attributed to Rice's hamstring injury early on in the conference schedule. A fully healthy Ray Rice probably gets to the rim a bit more against teams like Ohio State, against whom he struggled mightily.
Though I don't foresee Rayvonte changing his approach much in 2015, the team's new additions may prevent him from maintaining his massive role in the offense. With new shooters flanking the wings, it's possible Groce may opt to use Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks for longer stretches to help open up lanes inside for Abrams and Nunn. Rayvonte played both the 2 and 3 at times this year, but I'd expect to see him almost exclusively at the small forward position next year given the team's new weapons.
A predicament like this will reveal a lot about our head coach. Groce decided to start the talented freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill over seniors Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand this year because of the extra oomph they gave the offense. There were stretches of games last year when Rice bricked several shots in a row in attempts to get himself going. Will Groce avoid these stretches by using Nunn, Hill, or Cosby at the 3? That would certainly help the spacing of the offense, but we don't yet know if Groce values space over a trustworthy senior like Rayvonte. In those instances, what's best for the team may require Groce to take out his go-to scorer from the prior year. These are tough decisions to make, and we'll learn about Groce's decision-making process when the offense inevitably stagnates this coming season.
Rayvonte Rice is what he is-- a good defender who can muscle his way into the lane against smaller teams, but struggles when forced to rely on his outside shot. Is that enough to hold off some talented newcomers in the fight to start on the wing? Almost certainly. Is it enough to hold off those great shooters from taking away bits of his playing time? We'll find out. Either way, this year will be the defining performance of Rayvonte Rice as an Illini.