Easy On The Superlatives

Some things just never change. As soon as Darius Rice buried a knife in the heart of all of Connecticut- and temporarily saved the season for the University of Miami men's basketball team- with his game-winning three-point basket Monday night at the Convocation Center one of the most common words in the sports dictionary was being spewed everywhere.

It was being uttered on press row by awestruck sportswriters, including a busload from Connecticut covering the Huskies, in the TV booth where ESPN's Bill Raferty used it loosely and on the court where the students didn't know exactly what they were doing or apparently saying.

"Darius is a great basketball player and he's going to prove it next year in the NBA," said a UM fan clad in orange-and-green and who obviously had a couple extra alcoholic beverages throughout the evening.

Funny thing was he wasn't alone because almost everybody within an earshot was now telling anybody who would listen- not to mention Raferty on national television- what a great player this Rice kid is and what a great future he has in store.

Alright, maybe the mere fact that the junior from Jackson, Miss. had just completed his greatest outing to date at the University of Miami in grand fashion was reason for hysteria and a couple of exclamation points. After all its not everyday a player scores 43 points, makes 16-of-27 field goals and pins the prosperity of a team's entire season on his not-so-broad shoulders in front of a packed building and hordes of NBA scouts.

No doubt about it. It was a career night for the former McDonalds All-American who arrived in Coral Gables two and a half years ago with an unfair amount of expectations and the kind of publicity that would sink many 17-year-olds. He's come a long way from that kid that didn't know where to go on the floor and who would shoot the ball as soon as it touched his hands.

Still, let's not use the word ‘great' and Darius Rice in the sentence. Not yet anyway.

Let's keep the word ‘great' within its context and use it wisely. Darius Rice may one day get to a stage in his life when the word will be able to be spilled all over his mantel. Only Raferty, considering his knowledge of the game, of all those sportswriters that rushed the monitors on the press tables and fans roaming for a television camera should have used a little better judgment after examining Rice for close to two hours.

Rice is not great yet and may never be if he doesn't expand his game.

For all his cold-blooded shots and big plays against UConn Rice also showed anybody paying attention why he is still far from becoming an accomplished player, much less an NBA lottery pick as recently rumored.

Undoubtedly, Rice put together one of the most memorable performances I've ever witnessed in any sport, college or pro. But even in his torching off the Huskies and willingness to want the ball while teammates turned away from it Rice continued to show deficiencies in his skills and proved once again he is far from becoming what many think will happen as early as June- an NBA basketball player. Before the start of the 2002-03 season, Rice literally promised me in a 45-minute conversation that he had worked on his game and was ready to unveil a full arsenal that NBA personnel would droll over.

Either Darius was lying or he was a short memory span.

Despite a 6-10 frame to go along with 215 pounds, Rice continues to be strictly a perimeter player who refrains from going inside the paint as if it was filled with horse manure. For a player that posses his size, Rice makes minimal attempts or none to post up the opposing defender and get points on his way to the basket which is partly the reason why he has underachieved at this level. He also seems to be limited in his ability to put the ball on the floor and beat his man to the hole. Not good, especially if you aspire to play professional basketball.

Rice has never shot better than .398 in two full seasons and attempted a career-best of just 115 free throws last season. Not quite the kind of results you would expect from a player with so-called ‘great' talent. Great players, as Rice has been labeled in many circles, create scoring opportunities on their own, and don't just linger around the court hoping for a screen to be set.

It's all fine and dandy when his jumpers from the perimeters are falling down. But his lack of overall skills screams all the way to the forefront when he struggles from the floor. Nobody is complaining now because Rice can get away with it on nights when he's nailing everything from long range. But it will be an entirely different song in the NBA when he will be matched up with stronger and quicker forwards on a nightly basis. He won't have the luxury of sinking jumper after jumper with nobody within range of defending.

So there it was in fine print on the box score after the Hurricanes had just kept their season barely breathing. Rice had TWO lay-ups and one breaking away dunk compared to 13 jumpers as part of 16 made field goals. And although he connected on all his free throws Rice only had four of them the entire night. Rice may very well go on to a successful NBA career. But ‘great' should not be connected with his name at this stage of his career.

And all anybody needed to do was go ask one of the handful of NBA eyes that came to see Rice against the Huskies, including former player-turned-scout B. J. Armstrong and Miami Heat general manager Randy Pfund. They would have all agreed that Rice is far from ‘great'.

Let's use ‘great' to describe Darius' uncle Jerry who at the advanced age of 40 continues to do things on the football field most receivers in the National Football League can only dream about.

Let's use ‘great' to describe Barry Bonds who puts a bat on a ball like few have in the history of the game. Let's use ‘great' to describe Magic Johnson who helped transform the meaning of his position with superior court awareness, ball handling skills and the use of his size. Let's use ‘great' to describe Wayne Gretzky's act on a hockey rink. Let's use ‘great' to describe Muhammad Ali's artistry inside a boxing ring.

Therefore do us all a favor boys and girls. Bring out the word ‘great' out of the bag only when it's required. Especially when it comes to a college basketball player that has a long way to go before he can be labeled as such.

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