The hype started with four senior starters returning after an offseason spent toughening up and meeting with NBA folks. Then the focus hit on a freshman class ranked 13th nationally, spearheaded by Jereme Richmond, the first Illini recruit named a McDonald's All-American since Dee Brown. It seemed the sophomores, including co-Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson, were basically ignored. "The whole sophomore class has been out of mind, out of sight, not in print,'' said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "They haven't gotten the attention.''
The hype started with four senior starters returning after an offseason spent toughening up and meeting with NBA folks. Then the focus hit on a freshman class ranked 13th nationally, spearheaded by Jereme Richmond, the first Illini recruit named a McDonald's All-American since Dee Brown.
It seemed the sophomores, including co-Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson, were basically ignored.
"The whole sophomore class has been out of mind, out of sight, not in print,'' said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "They haven't gotten the attention.''
Richardson and backup point guard Brandon Paul play key roles on a team inspired to return to elite status when No. 13 Illinois faces Texas on Thursday in the 2K Sports Classic semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
"This is where all the best basketball players in the world have played,'' Richardson said. "We can prove we can play with anybody in the country.''
A former Peoria Central star who spent his final season at Findlay College Prep in suburban Las Vegas, Richardson began the season quietly, scoring few points and even fewer marks on the Matto hustle chart after averaging 10.5 points a game last season and tying for second in Matto points.
Richardson had 16 points in the 85-63 win over Southern Illinois last Saturday after 11 combined in the first two games. He also compiled seven points on the Matto against the Salukis, giving Richardson 10 for the season but leaving him far behind Paul, the Matto leader with 26. The emphasis, Weber reminded everyone, is playing tough defense before worrying about offense.
"I joked that I always thought he was this tough kid from Peoria,'' Weber said. "I'm not sure his self-esteem is the best. He's a good-natured kid that probably doesn't have the toughness I thought he had. He can improve as we go.''
Richardson, considered by Weber as the Illini's defensive stopper, isn't a football player in a basketball uniform.
"I don't know how coach Weber really defines a tough guy,'' said Richardson with a can of Gatorade in his hand and a smile on his face. "He defines a tough guy as a kid who will go out there and beats the nose off somebody. He wants to see blood coming off me every time I'm coming to the bench. I feel aggressive, but I really don't know if I'm his tough yet. I'm kind of scared to find out what that toughness is.''
The Longhorns' guards "are their strength,'' Weber said, referring to wing guard Jordan Hamilton, tough point guard Dogus Balbay of Turkey, speedy reserve Jai Lucas and freshman starter Cory Joseph, Richardson's former teammate at Findlay in Richardson's senior season.
"I played with him, and we went 33-0,'' Richardson said. "Those are great bragging rights. Now's it's my time to play against him.''
Longhorns freshman forward Tristan Thompson, who spent time as Richardson's roommate after a midseason transfer to Findlay, averaged 14.5 points and seven rebounds off the bench in Texas' first two games. In a loaded freshman class nationally, Joseph and Thompson were both ranked in the top 20 in their class by Rivals.
"I don't think there's any question our two freshmen will be in the conversation with anybody in the country,'' Texas coach Rick Barnes said.
Richardson, the coaches pick as the Big Ten's top freshman last season, surprised the Illini staff with his 39 percent shooting from the 3-point line a year ago, and he's continued to work on ball-handling and passing -- weaknesses that sometimes bring him down, Weber said.
But Richardson felt like the tournament is a chance to show what he can do, just like his team.
"I want to have more exposure and get my name out there more nationwide,'' Richardson said.
Described as solid and older than his years, Richardson could make an impression on a big stage against the Texas perimeter.
"I think he's got a little Peoria tough guy in him,'' said Illini senior forward Bill Cole. "He sets the tone defensively for our team. He's up 94 feet from the basket, getting in their face and making it difficult. A lot of people don't notice how hard he makes it on the other team's point guard.''
Blood or not.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
No. 13 Illinois (3-0) vs. Texas (2-0)
8:30 p.m., Madison Square Garden, New York (ESPN2, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (3-0) ppg rpg
F Mike Davis Sr. 6-9 12.3 7.0
F Bill Cole Sr. 6-9 3.7 3.3
C Mike Tisdale Sr. 7-1 9.3 7.7
G D.J. Richardson So. 6-3 9.0 0.7
G Demetri McCamey Sr. 6-3 14.7 3.0
TEXAS (2-0) ppg rpg
F Gary Johnson Sr. 6-6 16.0 8.0
C Matt Hill Sr. 6-10 1.0 3.0
G Jordan Hamilton So. 6-7 22.5 7.0
G Dogus Balbay Sr. 6-1 5.0 5.0
G Cory Joseph Fr. 6-3 6.5 5.5
Noteworthy: The series is tied 2-2, the last meeting coming in a 72-64 win by Texas over Illinois on Dec. 23, 2000. … McCamey is shooting 70.6 percent over the last two games. Tisdale led the Illini in rebounding in all three games. Sixth man Brandon Paul ranks third in scoring at 11.7 points per game. … Texas coach Rick Barnes is two wins shy of becoming the 12th active coach to reach 500 wins. Texas was picked to finish third in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll.
Key for Illini: Handle the threat from the Longhorns on the perimeter.
Key for Longhorns: Adjust to Illinois' length and athleticism.
Key quote: "There's no doubt in my mind they're a contender for the conference (championship). When you contend for a title in a league like that, you're capable of beating anybody in the country.'' -- Texas coach Rick Barnes, on the Illini.
Prediction: Illinois 78, Texas 74