Taking a chance on Illinois

Josh Birnbaum

Josh Birnbaum

By Lucas Deal

There was a time in Rich McBride’s career when he had to make a choice.

He had just signed a National Letter of Intent to play basketball at Illinois under the direction of Bill Self and his popular high-low offense.

The Illini already had three great guards in Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head, but Self assured McBride that he would play, that he would get his.

But then Self bolted for Kansas, and McBride was left at a crossroads: Come to Illinois and play in his home state, or see if someone else would be willing to take him at such short notice?

McBride, along with fellow recruits Brian Randle and Warren Carter, still felt Illinois was the right place for him, but Self’s departure did leave him with some doubts.

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    “It was difficult,” he said about making the decision. “I thought about (transferring) a little bit, but I never really thought I would.”

    McBride was still evaluating his options when assistant coach Wayne McClain asked him to stay. To McBride, that was all he needed.

    “I had a couple of talks with Coach McClain after it happened and he stayed, which made my decision much easier,” he said. “It was easier for all three of us.”

    Illinois then hired Southern Illinois head coach Bruce Weber, and neither Weber nor McBride has looked back since.

    Now a junior starter for Weber’s 23-5 and No. 10-ranked Illini, McBride is third on the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game.

    Richard McBride Jr. was born Jan. 29, 1985 in Springfield, Ill., to Richard Sr. and Bernadine McBride. The oldest of four children, McBride has a sister who will be graduating from Springfield Lanphier in the spring as well as a twin brother and sister who are 13.

    McBride’s parents got him involved in basketball at a young age, but it didn’t take him long to realize he was talented. His size, he adds, didn’t hurt any either.

    “When I was in fifth grade I remember being the biggest guy out there and everyone would say, ‘He’s not in fifth grade, he’s got to be older,'” he said. “Then I started working at it and I became pretty good.”

    Since arriving in Champaign, McBride has adapted well to Weber’s guard-oriented system and has become one of the team’s most important players. He has also teamed up with freshman guard Jamar Smith to create one of the most formidable three-point shooting duos in the Big Ten.

    “He spreads the defense and makes teams know when he’s on the court,” said Brown, McBride’s fellow backcourt mate. “He’s a terrific shooter and as his confidence continues to build he’s only going to become a better shooter.”

    A quiet guy by nature, McBride really doesn’t like to talk about his accomplishments; he’d much rather float under the radar, do his thing and stay out of the limelight.

    And yet, there aren’t many die-hard basketball fans on campus who haven’t heard of the legend of Rich McBride. The scoring machine who, along with Philadelphia 76ers guard Andre Iguodala, led Springfield Lanphier to within one game of the 2002 Illinois Class AA State Championship.

    While Iguodala might have been Lanphier’s most explosive player, it was McBride who took most of the shots. The following season, with Iguodala gone and playing for Lute Olson at Arizona, McBride averaged almost 25 points and eight rebounds per game while being named an EA Sports and fourth-team Parade Magazine All-American.

    Randle said he never had the chance to play against his future teammate when they were in high school, but did catch a few of his games from the stands.

    “My junior year I made a trip down to my grandma’s house outside of Springfield and I went and saw him in a super-sectional game,” he said. “I knew him before then so I knew he was good, but he played really well when I saw him.”

    At the time, McBride considered the season and the appearance in the State Championship as the best basketball experience of his life. That is, until last March.

    “I enjoyed last year, it was a great experience for me,” he said. “It was something I had watched as a little kid so it was great to actually go.”

    McBride never started for the Illini in 2004-2005, but he did appear in all but one of Illinois’ 39 games, including playing two minutes in the national title game against North Carolina. He has started every game for the Illini this season.

    “Last year, he played his role and did everything we needed him to do,” Brown said. “But he’s got a great attitude and when you keep a great attitude things pay off for you.

    Brown added, “One thing I love about Rich is the swagger he has about himself, because that’s the confidence you need to be a good player and he’s had it for us this year.”

    But Weber added that McBride’s confidence and devotion to the game can sometimes take a toll on him mentally, a problem Weber said is common with first-year starters.

    “Rich cares,” he said. “It’s important to him and he really wants to do well. But in a way he’s still a young player because (until this season) he’d only had freshman-type minutes.”

    He added that McBride’s inexperience could be a reason for his occasional off-games.

    “When you’re put in his position and you’re put under those expectations and pressure, it can be a lot,” Weber said. “Not necessarily pressure from the fans, but what you put on yourself.

    “I’ve told him, whether he makes shots or not he still helps our team – I’m just not sure it’s sunk in yet. But when he does make shots it sure makes it a lot easier on everybody else.”

    McBride thinks Weber probably has the right idea, but still feels responsible when he doesn’t make a play he thinks he can, no matter how difficult it is.

    “I think earlier, I felt the pressure and felt I had to do so much,” he said. “I didn’t realize that all you have to do is relax and let things come to you.”

    Because of this pressure, McBride has recently tried to forget about everything else around him and just do the one thing he knows he can, play.

    So far, the results have been good.

    Since Illinois’ 11-point win at Northwestern on Jan. 21, McBride has led the Illini in scoring four times and is averaging 12 points a game.

    “If that shot counts against Penn State, he’s probably the co-Player of the Week in the Big Ten (for that week),” said Weber, referring to McBride’s near buzzer-beater against the Nittany Lions on Feb. 4. “He’s been having good games.”

    If McBride and his teammates can keep up their current pace, he said there’s no telling how far they can go.

    “I’m not going to try and put a set game on us, but I think we could go deep in the tournament,” he said. “We’ve got the talent and the experience; it’s just a matter of coming together and playing as a team.”

    A team he’s sure glad he joined three years ago.

    “Things couldn’t really have gone much better,” he said.