Welcome to our 2014-15 Illinois Basketball player evaluations! We'll be starting this series off with the seniors before moving on to the freshman, sophomores, and juniors in that order. You can expect the segments to be published about every two to three days.
Rayvonte Rice | Senior | G
Rayvonte Rice wasn't offered a scholarship coming out of Champaign Centennial high school, but that didn't stop him from joining his hometown team. After playing two seasons at Drake, Rice transferred to the University of Illinois and sat out the 2012-13 season; his body underwent a drastic transformation and it wasn't long until he established himself as the team's best player.
Rice had a monstrous 2014-15 non-conference slate. His actual production was very similar to his junior season, but he was doing it in an astoundingly efficient manner this time around. Through the first 13 games, Rice averaged 17.7 points while taking an average of 10 shots. His three point shooting during this stretch (47%) also saw a nearly 20% jump from 2013-14. Rice was named the Most Valuable Player of the Las Vegas Invitational after Illinois' victories against Indiana State and Baylor; he averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 48% from the field during those two games.
After playing in two conference games against Michigan and No. 20 Ohio State, Rice was sidelined with a broken left hand that he suffered during practice. That, unfortunately, wasn't the only event that kept him off the court; Rice was also suspended indefinitely on January 31st due to an unspecified violation of team rules. He ended up missing a total of nine games before making his return on February 12th against Michigan.
It took Rice some time to get re-acclimated to the team after his absence, but his individual production eventually returned to early season form. Illinois all but collapsed down the stretch, but Rice still managed to score at least 19 points in four consecutive games to end the regular season.
Oregon | December 13th
Illinois ultimately lost this contest, but one of Rayvonte Rice's best games of the year came against Oregon in December. His skill set was on full display at the United Center as he tied his career high with 29 points while shooting 9/16 from the field (5/7 from three).
Missouri | December 20th
Great players rise to the occasion in big moments and that's exactly what happened against Missouri in the 2014 Braggin' Rights Game. The game was tied 59-59 with just seconds remaining when Rice hit a game-winning step back jumper at the buzzer to give the Illini their second straight victory in the rivalry. He finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists in what is undoubtedly the defining moment of his Illinois career.
Final Grade: A-
Repeat after me: RAYVONTE RICE WAS ILLINOIS' BEST PLAYER.
Rice ended the year as Illinois' leader in points (16.5PPG), rebounds (6.5RPG), steals (1.8APG), field goal percentage (47.1%), and three point percentage (43.6%). He reached double figures during 22 of the 24 games he played; he had nine 20 point games which includes a career-high 29 point performance on December 13th against Oregon.
For some reason, there's a portion of the fan base that isn't comfortable unless they're criticizing the team's best player. What more did you expect from Rayvonte Rice? His two seasons in Champaign were about as good as it gets from an individual standpoint. The team--a collective group of players and coaches--didn't meet expectations; placing most of the blame on a single individual is foolish.
Now can a few arguments be made otherwise? Sure.
The suspension obviously created a distraction and that's the only reason why I didn't give Rice an "A", but it realistically didn't have an on-court impact. Did you see how heavily wrapped his hand was during the Michigan game? Rice was going to be missing those three contests regardless of his violation. Was he selfish with the ball at times? Definitely, but I'd argue that particular mentality is almost necessary in order to be a team's No. 1 offensive option.
If Rayvonte Rice could handle the ball better or was another inch or two taller he'd be a sure-fire NBA draft pick. But he isn't. I think he has the potential to be invited to a camp and perhaps even stick on a roster for a few years, but I wouldn't say that's likely. With that said, Rice has a great skill set and does things on the court that can't really be taught. When it's all said and done I think he'll end up having a successful career overseas--which isn't a bad thing at all.
Next up on our evaluation schedule is Nnanna Egwu--make sure to check back later this week.