Illinois basketball looks to future without Richmond, seniors

For the first time since 2006, the Illinois men’s basketball team is talking about a future without Jereme Richmond, who committed to Illinois as a high school freshman. In a statement issued last Tuesday, the freshman guard-forward announced his decision to declare for the NBA draft over returning to Illinois.

Illini fans surprised by the news weren’t alone. Head coach Bruce Weber wasn’t even sure what to expect.

“I didn’t really, to be honest, know Jereme was going to go because it was from one day to the next a total different mindset,” Weber said.

“He was there Monday and was all fired up and going to be part of it. Then he came in Wednesday and said, ‘I’m thinking about it.’ And we talked and talked to Mom and Dad. Went through that week, and then the weekend he made the decision,” Weber added. “He had it in his mind that he needed to leave.”

Senior forward Mike Davis, who was named last season’s MVP by his teammates, said the Richmond news surprised him, too.

“I was a little shocked,” Davis said. “But we all know how talented he is, he can play in the NBA. But is he ready?”

Davis declared for the draft following his junior season, but opted to return to Illinois after receiving feedback. Now in the process of hiring an agent and attempting to make the jump to the pros himself, Davis said he expected Richmond to be drafted in the first round.

“He’s a tremendous talent,” Davis said. “When it comes to him, I think it’s interviews. Everyone’s going to want to know why you’re leaving, what happened and stuff like that. If he comes back with positive reviews in interviews, I think he’ll be fine.”

Richmond — who averaged 22.1 minutes and 7.6 points this season — wasn’t in attendance at the annual Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball Banquet on Tuesday, a decision Weber said was made by the freshman.

But instead of dwelling on the past, the Illini coaching staff and returning players are already looking to the future.

Weber named sophomore DJ Richardson the captain for the spring and possibly the summer and into next season. The last time Richardson filled that role was as a co-captain his senior year at Findlay Prep in Nevada, where he helped lead his team to a 33-0 record and a national championship.

“It’s a big responsibility coming off an up-and-down season from last year, just to get a chance to run a college team, it’ll be pretty exciting. This put a lot of pressure on my back, but Brandon (Paul) and Tyler (Griffey) will do a good job helping me,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he plans to lead by example as a captain, keeping his teammates motivated to stay in the gym.

The Peoria, Ill., native’s limp Tuesday night proved he’s been keeping his word so far. Richardson hurt his ankle playing a one-on-one game of cutthroat late Sunday night, but spending extra time in the gym is nothing new.

It started when Weber told him the only way to get out of a slump was to come in the gym early and stay late. Richardson did just that at the end of last season to positive results. The guard tallied 25 points in Illinois’ two NCAA tournament games, including 15 points and three steals in the loss to No. 1-seed Kansas.

“He’s got some experience now, he’s the guy that always gets them together, they play cards. He’s the guy that recruited a lot of these younger guys,” Weber said. “Just thought we needed some leadership, we are young, and just said, ‘Here’s your challenge.’ We need somebody to get us going right away.”

Without a returning senior on the roster, the burden for helping the incoming freshmen find their places and leading next year’s squad is likely to fall on Richardson’s fellow sophomores, forward Tyler Griffey and guard Brandon Paul.

“I think me and Brandon have to do a good job of bringing the guys in and letting them know their roles from the jumpstart. When I was a freshman, Brandon was freshman, Tyler was a freshman, we really didn’t have that,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to do a good job as juniors.”

Paul averaged nine points and 3.1 rebounds for the 2010-11 Illini and took home the Matto award at the basketball banquet. But he was still one of the players Weber said would have to make improvements for Illinois to be good next season.

Despite the changes to the squad, Paul said there’s plenty to look forward to for 2011-12, including team chemistry.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Paul said.

“We’re all great friends, we hang out all the time. Just with the guys coming in, hopefully they have a great attitude coming in and being ready to work.”

But Richmond is no longer a part of that mix.

“There was a lot of things that circulated around that all season long, but at the end of the day we wish him the best. He’s going to be successful in his future, no matter what he chooses to do,” Paul said. “We’re going to be fine next year, we’ve just got to continue to work hard and get better as a team.”