Illinois sophomore guard D.J. Richardson looked into a mirror and found the answer. "I started pointing the finger at myself,'' said the former Peoria Central High School star. Slumping through the bulk of the Big Ten Conference season, Richardson listened to his uncle Marcus Fair and "made a man decision.'' Only D.J. could change D.J.

CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois sophomore guard D.J. Richardson looked into a mirror and found the answer.

"I started pointing the finger at myself,'' said the former Peoria Central High School star.

Slumping through the bulk of the Big Ten Conference season, Richardson listened to his uncle Marcus Fair and "made a man decision.'' Only D.J. could change D.J.

So he also made a statement by cutting his hair, letting everyone know he's ready to try something different, and Richardson made a change by playing better defense. The Big Ten's freshman of the year last season, according to the league coaches, Richardson realized he had to adjust to get better.

"I hit rock bottom hard,'' Richardson said. "I know it's my fault hitting the wall. I'll do everything I can to get out of a slump.''

When No. 5 Illinois (19-12 overall, 9-9 in the Big Ten) plays No. 4 Michigan (19-12, 9-9) in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday (1:25 p.m., ESPN) at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the pieces are coming together for the Illini. Seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale rebounded from separate slides, and senior Bill Cole is the team's glue guy.

But the X factors in March are Richardson and sophomore Brandon Paul, who are expected to be team leaders heading into next year.

"Those are the two guys we really need to take another step for us," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Every guy is not going to make every shot, but D.J. is struggling with his shooting and Brandon's (issue) is taking care of the basketball. I was talking to both of them and said we have a few days of practice where we can really get after it. I told them to come to practice early and stay late. Work your butt off, get your confidence back and feel good about yourself going into the tournament.

"Both of them need to focus on what they can give to the team, and both of them are defensive stoppers. (Defense) is what they need to focus on and let the other stuff come.''

But they're human, and everyone on the court wants to score, so Richardson returns to the bench "with sad puppy dog eyes,'' Weber said.

Paul started in place of Richardson in the 72-48 win over Indiana on Saturday, and obviously, Weber wants Richardson and Paul to affect the game with defense, then score when opportunities arise. He felt the players, like other Illini during the season, judge their game only scoring totals.

"Coach has been talking to me about doing more than just scoring,'' Richardson said. "I've been trying to do that.''

It's not been as easy on offense for Richardson, whose 39-percent 3-point shooting probably caught the Big Ten by surprise last season. This winter, he faces the second- or third-best defensive option on the perimter, he said, after getting the third or fourth best last season. In the last 15 games, Richardson is shooting 29 percent from the field and 26 percent from the 3-point line.

"Everywhere I go, a guy is breathing down my neck or holding onto my jersey,'' said Richardson, whose scoring average fell to 8.3 points per game this season from 10.5 a year ago. "I have to do a better job of setting up my man and putting the ball on the floor. Those are the two main things for next season.''

Paul, the former Mr. Basketball in Illinois from Gurnee Warren, struggled with decision-making. Trying to create the action, he often gets called for a charge, but he's averaging 9.2 points. Meanwhile, Paul already leads the Matto hustle chart with 153 points this season, well head of runner-up Mike Davis' 138.

"The last pieces to the puzzle is D.J.,'' Davis said. "You'll see a different D.J. Richardson. Brandon has to lead us on the Matto. He can score. Once he figures out he doesn't have to shoot threes to impact the game, he can be way better off.''

Paul and Richardson combined to limit Indiana's Jordan Hulls to four points on 0-for-7 shooting Saturday after he had 18 points in the win at Indiana on Jan. 27.

In a matter of weeks, Richardson, Paul and freshman Jereme Richmond become the team leaders, so much more falls onto their shoulders.

"As long as me and D.J. work to get better and we push each other in practice, it can only help our careers,'' Paul said. "I'm looking looking forward to finishing the season strong as well as coming into next year. Me and D.J. can take leadership roles. I'm definitely looking forward to it, not to say I can't wait for the season to be over. That's not the case at all.''

If Paul and Richardson play well, the Illini might keep playing for a while.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.