The Big Ten's leading scorer didn't do much in his team's biggest Big Ten game to date.
A date with Northwestern was supposed to be anything but big for the Illini on Sunday night in Evanston, but when a bad shooting night spiraled into a nightmare, an upset loss suddenly became the team's most important game thus far. And the player who's carried the Illini to some of their most impressive wins was nowhere to be found.
It wasn't for lack of trying. Rayvonte Rice, who came in as the conference's leading scorer at 18.8 points per game, was simply the most glaring of his teammates on an abysmal shooting night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Illini shot just 28.1 percent, with Rice's off night the main culprit. He connected on just two of his 11 shot attempts, finishing with eight points. In the first half, the Illini made just six of 31 shots as a team, with Rice missing all his attempts, heading to the break with only three points, all free throws. Only a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left in the game saved him from a one-basket, five-point performance.
Credit the Northwestern defense, which clamped down on the Illini all night long. Freshman Sanjay Lumpkin was tasked with defending Rice, and he did a terrific job.
"We just had to guard him as a team. He's the leading scorer in the Big Ten," Lumpkin said postgame. "We did a great job on a lot of ball screens. And it wasn't just me guarding him, it was a lot of guys. It was a big reason why we won."
This latest disappointing performance, of course, comes in the wake of another bad night for the Illini's most pleasant surprise this season. Wednesday at Wisconsin, the Illini were blown out, 95-70, by the fourth-ranked Badgers. Rice finished with 19 points — though the game was well out of reach — but he needed a 7-of-21 shooting night to get there.
Rice shot a combined 28 percent (9-for-32) in the games at Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Illini head coach John Groce hinted that an injury could be bothering Rice, the Champaign native.
"We've got to figure out what's going on with him," Groce said. "My first priority is to take care of those guys from a health perspective. We'll see what we kind of size up the next day or two and kind of figure out what he's dealing with."
It's tough to say "how Rice goes, so go the Illini." After all, it was the play of Wisconsin and Northwestern that earned them wins rather than Rice earning his team losses. But it's true that Illinois has leaned hard on Rice in a season that started without a clear scorer in orange and blue.
A two-game rough patch does not a season make, and Rice deserves credit for his torrid start to the campaign rather than derision for a short slump. But on a night when Illinois needed someone, anyone to step up and make some shots, Rice was on lockdown.