Too much ink is spilled on the world's miscreants. This applies to sports, and it certainly applies to this year's embattled University of Memphis men's 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 relatively undersized team. He was the Tigers' finest player when they beat DePaul in January, hitting five of seven shots and pulling down nine rebounds. As for Barclay, he'll leave with mixed reviews. He was part of a "package deal," cynics will argue, that brought the electrifying Dajuan Wagner (a high school chum of Barclay's) 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. I'd like to remember Barclay as 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 remarkable stat lines I've 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 should be. Few Tiger fans will remember that Rice played 20 minutes in his college debut (November 13, 2001), the same night Wagner 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 program's all-time top 10 in games played.) No Tiger has made more three-pointers than Rice's 214 through Saturday's game against Louisville. And he's been as consistent as a metronome: 266 points scored as a freshman, 264 as a sophomore, 270 as a junior, 272 this season. (Rice's career average: 8.7 points per game.)
Rice's value on the floor can be divided into three equal parts:
· Defense. He has consistently matched up with an opponent's top scoring threat, be it Marquette's Travis Diener, TCU's Corey Santee, or Houston's Andre Owens.
· Shooting. I've 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 Calipari's backup point guard for three seasons, first behind Antonio Burks and this season behind Darius Washington. A more natural shooting guard, Rice has predictably adapted when called upon to run the show.
Calipari's postgame comments tend to center around the play of freshman point guard Darius Washington or the team's scoring leader, Rodney Carney. But when asked about Rice, the plaudits flow: "He's the best," says Calipari. "I have to talk to him about once every three weeks to tell him I appreciate him. He guards every day, he does what he's supposed to do, he doesn't try and do things he can't do. Every practice, every game, he gives you everything he has, which is what makes him unique.
"You forget about him. He played great against Houston [a Tiger loss on February 5th]. He held their best player [Owens] to two-for-nine from the floor and made shots. No one else played. That's because he plays every day."
As thoroughly unglamorous as Rice's college career has been, he will, ironically, serve as a recruiting prototype for Calipari. "He's a four-year starter," stresses the coach. "Here's a kid who wasn't highly recruited, and he's going to get a college degree. If you work hard and play hard, there's a spot for you on this team."
There have been grumblings all winter in Tiger Nation and 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. Some of the criticism, frankly, has been deserved. Which makes this weekend's Senior Day so important, because it honors a young man such as Anthony Rice. It's somehow fitting that he takes center stage just as he says goodbye.