LAWRENCE — In a California airport, waiting for his flight earlier this month, MJ Rice couldn’t help but to start feeling anxious.
That flight, part of his journey to Lawrence ahead of Rice’s freshman season of college basketball at Kansas, was delayed. He’d text Jayhawks assistant coach Kurtis Townsend things like, “I’m excited to get here,” and “I’m ready to get started.” The only thing stopping the 247Sports Composite four-star prospect, the McDonald’s All-American, was that flight.
Rice said he didn't get into town until 4 a.m. on June 8, but at least he’d finally arrived. He didn’t get to sleep until 6 a.m. and had to wake up at about 8:15 a.m. But during a scrimmage later that day at Allen Fieldhouse, he didn’t play like someone operating on just a couple hours of sleep. And about a week later, he reflected on what it meant to be with the Jayhawks.
“It feels good,” Rice said. “I’m learning a lot as I go through the first stages of college, just getting around my new brothers, my new teammates, and just really understanding the program … and the culture, and everything like that. But besides that, the teammates are good, the coaching is good. I’m just really soaking it all in right now.”
Rice, from North Carolina, signed with Kansas in November while playing for Prolific Prep in California. He said he saw Jayhawks coach Bill Self’s program as a place where he could grow both as a man and as a basketball player. Rice wants to win a championship and prepare for his ultimate goal of reaching the NBA, and he considers Kansas the best place to do that.
Rice said Self and Townsend were honest with him during his recruitment, saying the 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard would have to put in the work and fight for his spot.
And that’s just fine for Rice, who considers himself someone who will always push through adversity.
“So, I mean, it’s nothing new for me,” Rice said. “But I think the biggest thing for me is really just learning the culture and learning the system. I feel like when I get that part down pat, I’ll be a great player.”
Rice is among a group of incoming freshmen, including Gradey Dick, Ernest Udeh Jr. and Zuby Ejiofor, who figure to be great players for Kansas sooner or later. Rice, Dick and Udeh are McDonald’s All-Americans. Ejiofor is ranked 51st in the nation for the 2022 class and a four-star prospect.
Returning forwards Cam Martin and KJ Adams Jr. expressed excitement about the potential the team has with these freshmen. Adams highlighted Rice’s jumper and confidence level. And a returning guard, Kyle Cuffe Jr., described Rice as a relentless attacker offensively who won’t back down from anyone.
If Self thinks Rice and Dick are playing well enough that they have to be on the floor with, say, veterans Kevin McCullar and Jalen Wilson, Self will put that smaller lineup out there. Whether it’s alongside Dajuan Harris Jr. or Joseph Yesufu, two smaller returning guards for Kansas, Self isn’t against relying on two freshman wings in that manner. Harris and Wilson, a forward, are the only two returning regular starters for the Jayhawks from this past season.
“The positions are all open,” said Self, referring to the freshmen competing for starting roles. “I mean, they’re wide open. I don’t think there’s any doubt that MJ and Gradey are going to fight for a starting position here, no doubt. It still remains to be seen how our bigs do. I don’t have an opinion on that yet. But should they all be able to compete and fight for it? Absolutely. But there’s some guys that are unknowns from last year that will definitely put up a fight to make sure they’re in the best position, too.”
Rice said anything is possible when it comes to what his freshman class is capable of. He thinks they all want the same thing: a championship. It’s just a matter of blocking out any negativity and focusing on the competition between themselves and their teammates.
Dick, Rice’s roommate, said their competition can make each other and their teammates better. The two are friends, Dick volunteered, who’ve known each other through basketball since before high school. Rice, Dick said, is more physically ready for the physicality of the college game than the average freshman.
Whether that helps Rice see significant minutes quickly will be determined in time. But if he does, that heightens the potential Rice plays alongside another teammate who he’s known for some time. Bobby Pettiford Jr., another returning guard, said they’ve known each other since they were “real young.”
Pettiford is from North Carolina, too, and someone Rice described as akin to a brother. For a time, Pettiford said, they lived close to one another. While Rice said Kansas was always in the mix for him as a college destination, Pettiford certainly tried to play a role in his recruitment.
“He’s a dog,” Pettiford said about Rice. “He’s a madman. Like, he’s going to give you all the energy. People think he’s just kind of big and strong. I hear that a lot. But, no, he’s got — he’s been working on his skill. He can shoot the ball. He’s a three-level scorer. He can guard. So, coach will make sure he’s playing defense — especially when it’s Big 12 basketball.”
Whatever role Rice ends up earning, he thinks when people get to know who he is off of the court they will love him on the court. Rice said that’s because they’ll know why he puts so much effort into the game. They’ll see why he tries to bring so much energy.
Rice looks to have fun and believes he’s capable of a lot when that’s happening. He looks to create for his teammates, be aggressive and score. And he does it for where he comes from — Henderson, North Carolina.
“That’s my story,” said Rice, who also highlighted the people in his support system who he doesn’t want to let down. “That’s just who I am. Coming from there, it was hard. And I always say this, it was hard. It wasn’t easy for me growing up. I went through a lot of adversity, a lot of trials and tribulations. I feel like those make me who I am, honestly.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.