This wasn't a good basketball season. Granted, the Illinois Fighting Illini haven't actually had one of those in the past decade, but that's only part of the point. A late season collapse cost the team a shot to make the tournament and ended with obliteration at the hands of the Crimson Tide in a road-home NIT game.
The fanbase is angry. And I get it. Illinois basketball is supposed to be better than this. It hasn't been for a long time, but it's supposed to be. And as the comments sections on almost anything related to it have shown, what's not being thrown at John Groce's feet for this is being piled onto Rayvonte Rice's.
Rice played for Illinois for two years and never made it to the postseason. That's a fate no Illini had met since the early 90s. Being the most noticeable player on the team, this has made him into a bit of a lightning rod for scorn and hot takes.
Yes, the team went 6-3 in conference play when he was out with an injured hand and then suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules and only won three of ten conference games with him playing. That doesn't interest me. The 6-3 stretch was two good wins (MSU, Maryland), one decent win (Purdue), three freebies (Northwestern, Rutgers, PSU), and one decent loss (IU), and two bad losses (Nebraska, Minnesota). That doesn't really say anything to me.
What I want to talk about is the flawed idea that it was somehow Rice's job (and seemingly only Rice's job) to be the leader this team needed. Was he the most talented and physically-gifted athlete on the team? Yeah, he was. Would it have been all kinds of great if he was some sort of grand inspirational leader, a true galvanizing force for the younger players to look up to and draw strength from? Of course.
But not every athlete is that kind of person. Hell, most people in general aren't. Not everyone is or can be a leader. Yet because he was the best player, I guess a large portion of the fanbase expected that to somehow translate into him being the leader of the team.
He was not voted captain. Does that mean his teammates don't like him? I don't know. I'm not one of them. But it doesn't automatically mean that they didn't. Maybe, just maybe, it means that they recognized that Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams are those guys. Maybe Rice was more comfortable without having the leadership yoke placed around his neck. It's not for everyone.
It's okay to be upset that the Illini didn't make it to the dance again this year. It sucked. But this whole "Ray Rice should have been a team leader because he's good at basketball!" narrative is pretty flawed. Not every senior is going to be a leader. People seem mad that a square peg wasn't fitting into the triangular hole they insisted it be jammed through. That's not on Rice.