D.J.Richardson Has Been The Key To Illinois’ TurnaroundPosted by Deepak Jayanti on February 18th, 2013
Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.
About a month ago, Illinois was reeling in the Big Ten because they were upset by Northwestern in Champaign. The 68-54 loss came at the worst time after they were hammered by the Badgers in Madison four day earlier by 23 points. The loss to Purdue to kick off the Big Ten season could have been put aside as an aberration, but the loss to the Wildcats proved that the Illini would have to earn every one of their wins in the Big Ten. But a month later, optimism may be back again in Champaign as they returned the favor to the Wildcats in Evanston with a 62-41 route last night. John Groce‘s team hasn’t really changed their offensive philosophy during the last month – they still depend on the deep shot for most of their offense but senior D.J. Richardson has turned it up over the past four weeks, regardless of the outcome of the game. He has averaged 17.5 PPG and 4 RPG over the last eight games and has clearly asserted himself as the leader of the team during the tough stretch.
Fellow senior guard Brandon Paul is still the best scoring option but Richardson is their best shooter from beyond the arc and has been their best defender on the perimeter. During the 1-4 start in conference play, the Illini went cold from the long range and appeared clueless on defense. Something had to change and it started with defense as Richardson led the charge. The same Wildcats team that shot 8-15 (53% 3FG) from beyond the arc in Champaign couldn’t find the rim last night as they shot just 5-27 (18% 3FG) from deep. Richardson’s efforts were not fruitful immediately because they lost three more games to Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, but the perseverance paid off as he scored 23 points against Indiana and the Illini finally cracked through in the Big Ten against a top team to save their season. Tyler Griffey‘s last second layup has been well publicized but without Richardson’s intensity, the game wouldn’t have been tied at the end.
Richardson could still improve his long-range shooting from 34% but the timing of his shots has been brilliant. He hit a buzzer beater against Hawaii, which was ridiculously tough shot as he picked up the pass below his knees, and nailed a three from the corner. Without that buzzer beater, the Illini would have gotten off to a rough start to their Maui trip and they may not have rode their hot streak through the tournament. When Richardson is effective on the offensive end, his energy seems to flow almost like osmosis through his teammates. Paul is talented enough to get his shot off from anywhere on the floor, but guys like Griffey and Mike Henry seem to piggy-back on Richardson’s energy. Another good example of this behavior was the road win against the Gophers a week ago. After the big win over Indiana, it seemed like deja vu again for the Illini because they went cold from the field to begin the game at The Barn – their first field goal came after nine minutes into the game. But over a three-minute stretch, Richardson led the charge again by hitting two threes and all of a sudden, the Illini seemed like a new team. They ended the half with a one point lead and rode their confidence through the second half. When your best shooter is confident with his shot, the rest of the teammates will most likely follow suit and they have for Groce.
Richardson’s career has been very volatile in Champaign, almost a representation of Illini hoops over the past four seasons. He was the freshman of the year by scoring 10.6 PPG and showed great promise during the 2009-10 season. But he took a big step back as as sophomore (8.6 PPG) and tried his best to save the tumultuous slump last year but it was too much for him to change by himself. But it appears that he is Groce’s go-to guy on the floor and has been a leader on the court. Even though he isn’t used to attacking the basket (just 23.9% FT Rate), he consistently makes an effort to drive hoping to get the opposition into foul trouble. After the game in Evanston, there were about 100 Orange Krush members chanting Richardson’s name as he was waiting for a post-game interview on the court. He clearly holds the key to Illinois’ chances to get into the NCAA Tournament and he appears to be determined to do whatever it takes to have their name called on Selection Sunday.