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New Illini Rayvonte Rice’s homecoming game a win

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Updated: December 10, 2013 6:17AM

CHAMPAIGN — It was almost as though he’d been here all along, as though those two years at Drake never happened.

As though Rayvonte Rice’s ­Illini dreams always were destined to come true.

Of course, Rice — a 21-year-old junior who sat out last season after transferring from the Des Moines, Iowa, school — knows better than that. He remembers how disappointing it was to leave this town — after a decorated career at Champaign Centennial in which he was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior — because Illinois didn’t want him.

It’s not that then-coach Bruce Weber whiffed on a superstar who was right under his nose. Rice carried too much weight on his 6-4 frame. It made him a misfit for a program at Illinois’ level.

But now? Rice is 30 pounds lighter than he was when coach John Groce invited him on board. He’s a changed player, too — better than ever, clearly.

In Friday’s season-opening 80-63 victory against Alabama State, Rice did far more than live a childhood dream. With 22 points, nine rebounds and a fearlessness off the bounce that sent him to the line for 10 free throws, he announced himself as the Illini’s best player.

Curie super-recruit Cliff Alexander might or might not pledge himself to Illinois next week, but make no mistake: Champaign is Rice’s town again. He’s home. And he looks every bit the part of a player who will lead the Illini throughout this season and into the next one.

“I’m like 30 pounds lighter, so yeah,” Rice said, as though that’s all there is to his transition from mid-major transfer to potential Big Ten standout.

Groce wants the Illini to play fast, to be confident and unafraid, to bring a go-for-it mentality to the court. It will take time for the team’s five true freshmen, all of whom played Friday, to come around to that disposition. Rice, on the other hand, is there already and seems to be bringing veterans Nnanna Egwu (10 points, 10 rebounds), Joseph Bertrand (14 points, eight rebounds) and Tracy Abrams along with him.

“He’s aggressive,” Egwu said. “He goes to the basket, attacks the rim. It helps all of us.”

There were occasions when Groce thought Rice could have been more aggressive. If he had wanted to, Rice probably could have outscored Alabama State’s Jamel Waters, a 5-9 ball of fire who scored 27 points.

But to criticize Rice’s debut even a little would be to miss the point entirely.

“Opening night’s a special night,” Groce said. “You don’t get too many opening nights in your career.”

At Illinois, Rice can look forward to only one more of these. The first one was extraordinary, and it was merely a belated beginning.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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