In a season of troubles, Tiger Nation can count its blessings for Anthony Rice.


ANTHONY'S DAY Too much ink is spilled on the worldÕs miscreants. This applies to sports, and it certainly applies to this yearÕs embattled University of Memphis menÕs basketball team. Lost in the ugly headlines, sadly, are the jewels of the program like Anthony Rice.

This Saturday at FedExForum, the U of M will say goodbye to its current senior class: Rice, Duane Erwin, and Arthur Barclay. Erwin grew into a vital member of the 2004-05 squad, representing the most consistent inside threat -- both offensively and defensively -- for a team relatively undersized. He was the TigersÕ finest player the night they beat DePaul in January, hitting five of seven shots and pulling down nine rebounds. As for Barclay, heÕll leave with mixed reviews. He was part of a Òpackage deal,Ó cynics will argue, that brought the electrifying Dajuan Wagner (a high-school chum of BarclayÕs) to Memphis. He made news this season as much for his fists as his play, drilling teammate Sean Banks after the Texas game, then drawing a one-game suspension for throwing a punch in the first TCU contest. IÕd like to remember the guy who overcame the stigma of being a partial academic qualifier and some nagging knee injuries, a player who had one of the most unique stat lines IÕve ever seen: 10 rebounds without a field-goal attempt in the win at South Florida in January.

Say what you will about Erwin and Barclay, though, Saturday should be for Rice. The Atlanta native -- on schedule to graduate with a degree in art gallery management -- is the poster child for what a Division I college basketball player can be. Few Tiger fans will remember that Rice played 20 minutes in his college debut (November 13, 2001), the same night Wagner himself took center stage at The Pyramid. Over the course of his four seasons in Memphis, Rice has yet to miss a game. (He should wind up among the programÕs alltime top 10 in games played.) No Tiger has made more three-pointers than RiceÕs 214 through SaturdayÕs game against Louisville. And heÕs been as consistent as a metronome: 266 points scored as a freshman, 264 as a sophomore, 270 as a junior, 272 this season. (RiceÕs career average: 8.7 points per game.)

RiceÕs value on the floor can be divided into three equal parts: Defense. He has consistently matched up with an opponentÕs top scoring threat, be it MarquetteÕs Travis Diener, TCUÕs Corey Santee, or HoustonÕs Andre Owens. Shooting. IÕve said it all season long: these Tigers go as far as their shooters take them. Rice was a combined 7 for 12 from beyond the arc in wins over Marquette and Louisville. He made only 2 of 11 in losses to Charlotte and the Cardinals last week. Ball-handling. Rice has essentially been coach John CalipariÕs backup point guard for three seasons, first b ehind Antonio Burks, this season behind Darius Washington. A more natural shooting guard, Rice has predictably adapted when called upon to run the show.

CalipariÕs postgame comments tend to center around the play of freshman point guard Darius Washington or the teamÕs scoring leader, Rodney Carney. But when asked about Rice, the plaudits are delivered en masse. ÒHeÕs the best,Ó says Calipari. ÒI have to talk to him about once every three weeks to tell him I appreciate him. He guards every day, he does what heÕs supposed to do, he doesnÕt try and do things he canÕt do. Every practice, every game, he gives you everything he has, which is what makes him unique.

ÒYou forget about him. He played great against Houston [a Tiger loss on February 5th]. He was the only guy that played. He held their best player [Owens] to two-for-nine from the floor, and made shots. No one else played. ThatÕs because he plays every day.Ó

As thoroughly unglamorous as RiceÕs college career has been, he will ironically serve as a recruiting prototype for Calipari. ÒHeÕs a four-year starter,Ó stresses the coach. ÒHereÕs a kid who wasnÕt highly recruited, and heÕs going to get a college degree. If you work hard and play hard, thereÕs a spot for you on this team.Ó

There have been grumblings all winter long in Tiger Nation, plenty of turn-your-head-away headlines that make you wonder about the kind of student-athlete hitting the hardwood these days for the U of M. And the criticism, frankly, has been deserved. Which makes this weekendÕs Senior Day so very necessary. For a young man like Anthony Rice, how fitting that he takes center stage just as he says goodbye.

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