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Illinois basketball’s Rayvonte Rice in good shape on, off court

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice celebrates after Braggin' Rights NCAA college basketball game against Missouri Saturday Dec. 21 2013 St. Louis.

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice celebrates after the Braggin' Rights NCAA college basketball game against Missouri, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in St. Louis. Illinois won 65-64. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee) EDWARDSVILLE OUT ALTON OUT ORG XMIT: MOSTP306

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Updated: December 29, 2013 8:25PM

Ordinarily, you would wonder about a Big Ten team whose best player is a small-school transfer who has transformed himself by spending more time lifting weights and less time lifting the knife and fork.

But little is ordinary about Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice, who heads into Big Ten play second in the conference in scoring (18.2 points). Since transferring from Drake after the 2011-12 season, Rice has lost 45 pounds and knocked 10 percent off his body-fat count, Illini coach John Groce said.

‘‘Mike Basgier, our strength coach, and Chelsea Burkart, our nutritionist, deserve a lot of credit,’’ Groce said. ‘‘But [Rice] deserves the most credit. A lot of kids his age would not go to the level he did with their diet and their strength and conditioning. He chose to make that important. That’s paying dividends now, all that hard work he did.’’

Thanks to his dedicated effort, the 6-4 Rice, who is listed at 235 pounds, also has made a big leap in shooting percentage. A 43 percent shooter — including only 24 percent on three-pointers — in 2011-12 at Drake, Rice also used his 2012-13 redshirt season to improve his skill. He’s a 50 percent shooter this season, including 33 percent from three-point range, even though he’s attracting more and more attention.

‘‘My coaches, the whole staff, have put me in this situation,’’ said Rice, who grew up adoring Illinois but was unwanted coming out of Champaign Centennial. ‘‘Working out and dieting right have put me in a great situation to be successful.’’

Even before Rice had played a game, his teammates had gained an appreciation for him by seeing his work ethic while he sat out last season.

‘‘We all know how great he is,’’ junior center Nnanna Egwu said. ‘‘He’s a great teammate. Unselfish, but he also knows when to attack.’’

That’s how the Illini plan to approach league play.

‘‘The Big Ten’s tough,’’ Egwu said. ‘‘Each game’s going to be a big game. The main thing is, you have to be consistent. The last two years, we weren’t consistent enough. [This season], we have the mentality and the right group of guys to have a consistent Big Ten season.’’

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