Rayvonte Rice’s teammates — and coach — have to pick it up for Illini

SHARE Rayvonte Rice’s teammates — and coach — have to pick it up for Illini

Groce is a terrific motivator, but is he making his Illini players better? (AP / Frank Franklin II)

CHAMPAIGN — If there’s one member of Illinois’ basketball program who has embodied player development during John Groce’s time as coach, it’s Rayvonte Rice. Over three seasons since transferring from Drake, Rice, a senior who sat out the 2012-13 campaign, has remade his body, refined his jump shot and — as one of the leading all-around players in the Big Ten — helped reinvigorate Groce’s program.

But Rice is, as Groce himself has pointed out often, as self-made and self-motivated as they come, a force of will and determination whose presence is as beneficial to his coaches as theirs is to him.

Playing without its alpha dog Wednesday night for the first time since Rice broke his left hand during a team practice, Illinois will be confronted by more than simply an excellent opponent in 14-1, 11th-ranked Maryland. The Illini — off to a disappointing start at 10-5 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play — also must face some difficult, perhaps uncomfortable questions.

Chief among them: Do talented sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, both former four-star recruits, have enough Rice-like dog in them to consistently work hard at both ends of the floor? Also, is this Groce-led coaching staff doing as well as it needs to be doing in the area of player development?

Hill, a 6-6 swingman who looked like one of the Big Ten’s most improved players through the season’s first month, averaged only 10.8 points over the six games leading into the Maryland contest. Nunn, a 6-3 shooting guard who averaged 11.7 points over his 10 Big Ten starts as a freshman, was at 7.4 this season over his first seven games against major-conference opponents. Neither player is getting it done defensively to the satisfaction of Groce, who claims to base playing time on defense and rebounding above all else.

Both players’ minutes are up significantly from a year ago, though, and presumably will climb for as long as Rice is sidelined.

“Of course I have to pick up my game while Ray is out,” said Nunn, a former Simeon star. “I definitely have to step up, and other guys as well.”

According to Hill, the next several weeks will be “[all] about intelligence and using our heads and staying composed. That’s been a problem for us.” And that begs the question: Why?

Hill and Nunn still are struggling with the mental part of the game. Some Illini fans are frustrated with senior center Nnanna Egwu, believing his own improvement has come in the smallest of steps. To be sure, transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby — both being given extended opportunities to play large roles — have struggled mightily to find any sort of groove.

Groce and his staff haven’t had their mitts on Starks and Cosby for those players’ entire careers, but both practiced all last season with the Illini. Entering the Maryland game, they were averaging approximately 24 minutes apiece and shooting terrible percentages on two-point attempts (combined .326) and three-point attempts (.310). Have their individual developments as players stalled in Champaign?

Several of Groce’s players have much to prove while Rice is out. Groce himself — always intense, always pushing motivational buttons — does as well.

“We don’t have any excuses,” Groce said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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