Chicago Colleges: D.J. Richardson

AUSTIN, Texas -- Somewhere lost in all the pomp, circumstance, inspirational montages and endless car commercials of the NCAA tournament is the little secret someone forgot to mention to Colorado and Illinois -- in order to win, you must put the ball in the basket with at least a modicum of regularity.

That's not to say the seventh-seeded Illini and No. 10 seed Buffaloes missed all their shots. But each did miss enough -- 11 straight for CU to end the first half; 14 in a row, including 11 3-pointers, for the Illini at the start of the second half -- to build unnecessary and frustrating drama into a game that could have been void of both. (Apparently it is in the contract of both teams that, since this is March, they must provide some madness. And boy, were the coaches plenty red in the face.)

But, finally, the drama came to a close, along with Colorado's season, as Illinois' 16-point lead -- built during CU's horrid shooting stretch -- was enough to withstand a 23-2 Buffaloes run -- made possible by the Illini's putrid shooting stretch -- to eke out a 57-49 win in the second round on Friday.

"It's easy to come back. It is hard to come back and win,'' CU coach Tad Boyle said. "Our scoring droughts are tough to deal with. We played well enough to win today. We just didn't play well enough down the stretch to win.''

It's hard to say Illinois (23-12) played well enough to win, either. The Illini shot 13 percent in the second half. But they pulled it out at the end.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams scored 13 for Illinois on 4-of-10 shooting, and added 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
"It was only fitting that the game was maybe as strange a game -- as far as the ebb and flow of it -- that I have been associated with this group,'' said Illinois coach John Groce. "We have done it the hard way with this group a lot.''

"We just find ways,'' said Illinois guard Tracy Abrams.

Now it is time for Illinois to try to find a way to win against Miami, which appears to be about as intimidating as Tony Montana. The Illini get the No. 2 seeded Hurricanes here in Austin on Sunday. So they get to deal with size -- three players of 6-foot-10 or better in the rotation; speed -- Shane Larkin moves like mercury on marble; and an experienced coach -- Jim Larranaga has been there, done that, with much less talent, just a few years ago at George Mason. It appears to be a daunting task for an Illinois program that slogged through the first nine games of its Big Ten schedule at 2-7. Miami started ACC play 13-0, by the way. Oh, and the Hurricanes had a 27-point win over then-No. 1 Duke.

"I know that they have got great size and they are going to play very hard,'' Groce said.

Illinois had its win over a No. 1, too, beating Indiana 74-72 on Feb. 7. So the Fighting Illini are capable. But they also need to be held culpable for their errors. It was those errors -- all 14 of them in a row -- plus a couple of turnovers, that might leave some wondering just how big a mismatch Sunday will be. (Did anyone mention Miami won 78-49 and had nine guys score in the first half against Pacific on Friday? Well, it did.)

OK, there are a few glimmers of hope. Illini guard Brandon Paul didn't improve his shooting percentage -- he is a 40 percent guy -- but did make 9 of 10 free throws, five of which helped seal the game. In fact, for as bad as the Illini were from the field (30.8 percent), they were solid from the line (70.8 percent).

"D.J. [Richardson] was in my ear, telling me to just keeping fighting,'' Paul said.

Then there was the defense and the rebounding. Illinois has now held two tournament teams under 50 points in its past three games -- Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and Colorado (21-12) on Friday. The Illini, despite giving up 14 rebounds to Josh Scott, were able to win the battle of the boards 37-36. And that was crucial in a game where misses were rampant -- and will be crucial again against the taller, thicker Hurricanes.

Illinois proved it could close. After failing so miserably from the field and falling behind, the Illini finished on an 18-5 run. One might say that they looked into the abyss and didn't blink. Miami looms large; if they can look at the Ibis and do the same, they just might be OK.
Jerrance HowardScott Powers for ESPNChicago.comIn his first season at SMU, Jerrance Howard says he will always be an Illinois fan.
Coaching at Southern Methodist hasn't stopped Jerrance Howard from rooting for Illinois.

Howard put 800-plus miles between himself and Champaign, Ill., when he left the Illini's coaching staff after last season and took a position with Larry Brown at Southern Methodist in Texas. It was a difficult decision because Howard grew up an Illini fan in Peoria, Ill. before played for them and then coaching under Bruce Weber.

Howard has no regrets because he believes he did what was best for his career. But Howard has realized that his heart and mind will never fully leave Illinois.

"To be honest, it was hard at first," Howard said. "I was an Illinois fan. I'll always be. That's my school. I'm going to root for them."

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Illini's Richardson earns Big Ten honor

February, 11, 2013
Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson was named Co-Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday.

Richardson averaged 18 points on 50 percent shooting and 2.5 steals in the Illini's two wins over top-20 opponents last week. He had a game-high 23 points, including 15 in the second half, in the Illini's upset of No. 1 Indiana. He also had 13 points and two steals in Illinois' 57-53 road win over No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday.

It was Richardson's first Big Ten Player of the Week award and the third for the Illini this season (senior guard Brandon Paul and sophomore guard Tracy Abrams).

Richardson shared the award Monday with Wisconsin junior guard Ben Brust, who played at Mundelein (Ill.) High School. Brust forced overtime against Michigan on Saturday by hitting a running shot near halfcourt and later connected on the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime. He finished with 14 points in the upset. He averaged 16 points for the week.

Groce happy for Illini seniors after upset

February, 8, 2013
Illinois coach John Groce said Friday he was happiest for his seniors after all they've been through following the Illini's upset of No. 1 Indiana on Thursday.

"I'm happy for the seniors not only what they battled here in the last week or month, but they've been through a lot of things during their careers," Groce said on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "The way those guys stepped up yesterday, the way they came together. I mentioned to my assistant with about three minutes to go, ‘My gosh, we played our tails off.'"

Illinois seniors Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have endured plenty of ups and downs throughout their careers. In the past two seasons, they've gone 23-3 in non-conference and been ranked as high as No. 10 in the country only to struggle in the Big Ten with a 9-19 mark. With Thursday's win, they improved to 3-7 in the Big Ten this season.

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Three things we've learned about Illinois

January, 2, 2013
Here are three things we’ve learned about Illinois during its non-conference schedule:

1. Illinois is an NCAA tournament team: The Illini and first-year coach John Groce have been one of the nation’s biggest surprises during the non-conference season and have proven they’re a NCAA tournament team. They’ve had their share of doubters from the season’s start after last season’s struggles, a change in coaches and the early departure of Meyers Leonard, but there shouldn’t be too many skeptics remaining. Illinois went 13-1 in its non-conference slate with quality wins over Butler and Gonzaga. Its only loss was a narrow one to Missouri in St. Louis. The Illini are currently at No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 8 in ESPN’s InsideRPI rankings. Illinois isn’t expected to run the table in the Big Ten or probably win the conference title, but it has shown it has the capability to be in the conference’s top half. If Illinois can finish .500 or better in a tough Big Ten, the Illini should be a lock for the tournament. The consistency of sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams, who scored 27 points against Auburn, and senior shooting guard D.J. Richardson, who is 4-of-22 from 3-point range in the last four games, could be the key to the conference season.

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Illini hope to regain Chicago edge

December, 28, 2012
[+] EnlargeSam Maniscalco
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast year's loss to UNLV at the United Center was the beginning of a skid for Illinois that resulted in Bruce Weber getting fired.
Chicago is important to the Illinois basketball program.

For one, the city and its surrounding areas are full of basketball talent. A bulk of the state's top players and even some of the nation's elite ones come from Chicago. Recruiting there is vital to the program's health. Seven players on the current roster are from the Chicagoland area.

Secondly, Chicago is home to thousands of Illini alumni. As much as Northwestern wants to call itself Chicago's Big Ten team, Illinois' alumni trump the Wildcats and all of the other Big Ten schools in the area.

Those two reasons have brought the Illini to Chicago to host an annual game dating back to 1994. It's a way of attracting recruits and thanking their fans. And with 32 wins in 43 appearances when visiting Chicago, the Illini have often been successful in their mission.

Lately, though, the game hasn't exactly worked out that way. The Illini have been beaten in their three last trips to Chicago, and two of those defeats -- an upset by UIC and a 16-points loss to UNLV -- had recruits and fans leaving unimpressed.

For Illinois' seniors, Saturday's game against Auburn is their last chance to win at the United Center and turn the annual Chicago game back in the program's favor.

"I have no clue (why we've struggled in Chicago,)" Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson said on Thursday. "It's a new year."

Richardson has been on the court for every one of the Illini's last three losses in Chicago.

Against Gonzaga on Jan. 2, 2010, Richardson witnessed Illinois rally from a 21-point first-half deficit to take an eight-point lead in the second half and finally fall 85-83 in overtime. He had six points in 15 minutes as a freshman.

Against UIC on Dec. 18, 2010, the Illini were riding a seven-game winning streak and came in ranked No. 14. On the other hand, the Flames had a first-year coach in Howard Moore and were under .500. None of that mattered as the Illini surrendered an eight-point second-half lead and lost 57-54.

"That was bad," said Richardson, who had 13 points in the loss. "That was terrible. That's all I can say."

Against UNLV on Dec. 17, 2011, the Illini, who were ranked No. 19, suffered another tough loss. The Rebels pulled away from Illinois late in the first half and kept it that way in the second half to close out with a 64-48 win.

"It was tough," said Richardson, who with a game-high 19 points was only the Illini player in double figures. "I don't want to count myself out of last year's game. As a team, we didn't play great. We didn't play good enough for us to win."

Not only have the Chicago losses been difficult to swallow for Illinois, they've also led to disappointing second-half finishes. After the Gonzaga loss, Illinois went 12-11 the rest of the year. After UIC, it went 10-13. After UNLV, it went 7-15. The Illini have been to the NCAA tournament once in the last three seasons.

With Illinois off to a 12-1 start this season, the Illini are optimistic that trend will change. A win over Auburn in Chicago could just springboard the Illini into the Big Ten season and set up another NCAA bid.

"That's what we're looking for," Richardson said. "Looking to go into this game, just having a refreshed start. It's going to be the second semester for school, second part of the season, just end the non-conference part on a good note. Try to go 13-1 in non-conference, go into the Big Ten, that's a whole season and get focused for that."

Illinois first-year coach John Groce understands what Chicago means to the program and said this week he planned to continue the tradition of the Chicago game.

"We're excited to go to Chicago," Groce said. "It's a huge area for us not only for alumni, but for a recruiting standpoint. We're really excited to have an opportunity to play up there. I know our guys are looking forward to it."

Bertrand creating #JoeTales on, off court

December, 21, 2012
Joseph BertrandJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesIllinois' Joseph Bertrand is averaging 8.6 points in 21 minutes a game.
Brandon Paul has achieved plenty in his Illinois career, and he's likely to accomplish even more.

But when Paul's four years are up and he measures all he did at Illinois, one of his favorite memories will come from something he did off the court, not on it. For Paul is the creator of #JoeTales.

JoeTales are real-life stories about Illinois redshirt junior guard Joseph Bertrand. Paul found some of his experiences with his close friend too funny to keep to himself, so he began putting them on Twitter and included them with the now well-known hashtag.

"Just everyone tells stories about how he acts funny,"said Paul, whose Twitter bio includes being the creator of #JoeTales. "I came up with the name and made the hashtag. A funny one would be when we were walking on the sidewalk, and we were trying to avoid a sprinkler. I avoided it, but it got on his leg. He got mad, took it and threw it and it landed upside down. He felt like he got revenge."

There's the #JoeTales' story of how Bertrand was playing basketball with a group of children at the Illini's practice facility and swatted a kid who thought he had a wide-open layup. There was the time when someone asked Bertrand why he wasn't on Twitter, and he said he got nervous when people followed him.

Bertrand has laughed along with Paul and everyone else who now tweets #JoeTales. Bertrand has even created his own Twitter account after years of reluctance and named it @iJoeTales.

Bertrand's favorite story of himself came when a vending machine failed to produce his item, so he took action.

"It didn't give me a pop," Bertrand said. "I felt I had been cheated, so I had to unplug it. It's stuff like that."

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Illinois kicks off Groce era in grand style

November, 22, 2012

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- For the first two games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Butler Bulldogs looked like giant-killers, circa 2010 and 2011.

A buzzer-beater versus Marquette followed by a thumping of North Carolina in the semifinals set them up for another magical run, this time in Maui.

Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens and his upstart Bulldogs, Illinois had other plans.

The Fighting Illini, behind strong performances from guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams, defeated Butler 78-61 in Wednesday's championship game.

While the game itself was periodically tight, the Illini led the entire way. With 10 minutes, 49 seconds left to go in the first half, they got their first double-digit lead and the Bulldogs got it down to single digits for only a brief stretch in the second half.

The win was a major validation for new coach John Groce, who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season and has brought his trademark aggressive offensive and defensive schemes to Champaign this season. The team looks completely transformed from Bruce Weber’s past few underperforming squads.

“I need to take a deep breath,” Groce said after the game. “You see the names that are on that trophy and it really puts it into perspective. The quality of this tournament. I think it’s the premier preseason tournament.”

“The thing I was probably the most proud of was our toughness,” Groce added. “Whenever you play Butler, you have to be tough. They are just so tough mentally and physically. They never beat themselves. … We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
AP Photo/Eugene TannerJohn Groce is off to a 6-0 start in his first season as Illinois coach after the Illini handled Butler.
Asked to describe his style in one word, Groce responded, “Attacking.”

Stevens, for one, was impressed.

“Very rarely when you have a new coach come in, do the pieces fit to that system that well,” Stevens said. “It’s so perfect the way that John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”

The Illini got great shooting and rugged defense the entire tournament. They shot 40 percent from 3-point territory and made an impressive 20 of 21 free throws in the final. And the Bulldogs, who shot the lights out against North Carolina, struggled against UI's suffocating defense. Butler shot just 36 percent from the field for the game and was 7-of-28 from beyond the arc. Somewhere, Roy Williams is wishing that Bulldogs team had shown up Tuesday night.

Paul led all Illini scorers with 20 points and was named tournament MVP. Abrams added 17 while Richardson scored 14 and grabbed 9 rebounds.

While Illinois got another balanced effort on this night, Paul was the clear leader of the team. He hit a number of clutch jumpers, and when his shot quit falling, he began driving to the basket. After several years of being a player with pro potential, he’s finally performing at that level every night. What’s different this season?

“I think coach Groce’s offense really opens it up for us,” Paul said. “Not only that, just lots of work on the offseason, not only as a team but individually, and I think it’s starting to show.”

“Brandon Paul’s a pro,” Stevens said. “He’s a big-time pro. Not only because he shoots it, the way he shoots it, he creates distance on his drives. I think he’s as good of a pro prospect as there probably was in the tournament.”

Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, who plays the game reminiscent of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, produced a game-high 27 points on 6-for-13 shooting from 3. Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, was named to the all-tournament team and had, by far, the most memorable moments of the tournament. From his buzzer-beating 3-point heave to defeat Marquette, to his off-balance 3-point barrages against UNC and Illinois, he has given the Bulldogs a glimpse of what's to come this season.

“He’s got the green light,” Stevens said. “If he’s not feeling it, he’s got the same green light. I think there aren’t five guys that have played college basketball in the last 10 years that have put in as much time as him. So he deserves to shoot as much as he wants.”

For Butler, it’ll return in a month to a tough Atlantic 10 Conference. With Temple, Xavier, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis all in the league, the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full. But they are also showing again that they can hang with anyone.

For Illinois, it’ll return to an even-tougher Big Ten. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all contenders for the national title, while Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are solid as well. With the strong play of the Illini in this tournament, they should be right in the mix with those last three Big Ten teams for a NCAA tournament bid.

Sloppy exhibition warrants concern for Illini

November, 5, 2012
I don’t put much stock into exhibitions. The goal, for most coaches, is to learn more about their respective programs and shake off the rust from the offseason.

Sloppy play is expected. Even for the best.

Illinois’ struggles in its 75-66 exhibition win over Division II opponent West Chester (Pa.) Sunday and new head coach John Groce’s postgame comments, however, might warrant more scrutiny than usual.

From the Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan:
"We're going to keep doing what we're doing," Groce said. "What? I'm just going to panic and do something different? We're going to do what we do and do what we do better."

There are certainly improvements to be made.

The Illini finished their win with 21 turnovers, five of them coming from Brandon Paul, to only seven assists. West Chester outscored the Illini 46-31 in the second half, cutting a 27-point Illini lead to only 10 points, prompting Groce to reinsert his starters in the final two minutes.

"It was sporadic or random at best," Groce said. "I thought we played well for about 20 minutes of it. … Those (statistics) aren't up to our standards. These guys have some pretty high standards."

Point guard Tracy Abrams finished with a game-high 17 points to go with seven rebounds and three steals.

It's safe to expect him to be instrumental in the Illini's rotation, which Groce said he is finalizing.

Through the exhibitions, he has started the players who graded out the highest at practices and he has kept a measured chart on how rotations worked together. Groce hopes to have a set rotation, which he expects to be about nine players deep, by Tuesday.

Just days before the start of the 2012-13 season, life within Illinois basketball remains unsettled.

Bruce Weber had talent. And even though the program missed the tournament multiple times in recent years, the Illini displayed its full potential in spurts.

But an unsettling trend developed after the team reached the NCAA title game in 2005. The Illini could contend with the best in the Big Ten and beyond on their best days. Those performances, however, became infrequent. And that’s something Groce has to change. Consistency is necessary in Champaign.

Yes, Groce will enjoy a lengthy grace period as he implements his system. But he’s not starting from scratch.

Paul could be an All-Big Ten performer. D.J. Richardson averaged 11.6 points per game last year. Abrams’ performance is a plus since he’s the only veteran point guard on the roster. Sam McLaurin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, will help the Illini in the post, their greatest weakness other than point guard depth.

The latter is most troubling, considering the Illini’s 21 turnovers against a Division II team. Illinois’ 13.4 turnovers per game were the No. 2 mark in the Big Ten last season. Without Meyers Leonard inside, opponents will put more pressure on the perimeter and attack Groce’s only proven playmakers. And if they can’t control the ball, problems will persist for a team that was ranked No. 126 in offensive efficiency.

The bottom tier within the Big Ten features multiple teams with question marks. Illinois is obviously in that group. And with Richardson and Paul in the backcourt and the potential impact of McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu (if his development continues) suggests that the Illini could climb the standings as easily as the others in the group who will vie for an NCAA tournament slot.

But, this could also evolve into another season of the lukewarm basketball that Illinois has produced in recent years.

No, Sunday’s exhibition isn’t the end of the world, which is why Groce refuses to “panic.” “Worry” might be a better word for a team that will soon face Gonzaga, Missouri and the field in the Maui Invitational prior to the start of play in the Big Ten, a conference with more depth and substance than any league in America.

Again, Groce deserves time. And he has it.

But it’s difficult to rate the Illini above the current projections that expect the team to finish toward the bottom of the league. Turnover-filled performances, even in exhibitions, don’t exactly stir up optimism about the program. They spur more “here we go again” talk.

I don’t think the Illini warrant that response yet. But Groce has some perennial problems -- a few that emerged Sunday -- to correct in the coming months if he plans to avoid that reaction in the future.
Illinois senior shooting guard D.J. Richardson wears a wristband with the numbers 3-19-13 printed on it.

The numbers stand for March 19, 2013, the first day of the 2013 NCAA tournament, and that’s what drives him on a daily basis.

“I really believe that,” Richardson said recently at the Big Ten basketball media day. “If I didn’t, I’d turn it inside out or take it off. I really think we could be a NCAA team.”

Richardson and fellow senior guard Brandon Paul hold the same belief. While they realize few people share their NCAA tournament confidence as the Illini’s offseason included a changeover at coach and losing center Meyers Leonard to the NBA, the two seniors are out to finish their college careers by going to the dance one more time.

So far, their careers haven’t been what they expected them to be. They’ve been to one NCAA tournament, one NIT, have a 58-44 overall record and have gone 25-29 in the Big Ten in three seasons.

“There’s a lot of regrets,” Richardson said. “Everyone wants to do better, but at the same time, it’s with us being experienced seniors. I believe we can have a great season this year. When I look back, more than everything bad you can think of happened to us the last three years. There’s some positive things that happened, but there’s a lot of bad things. We didn’t close out games we should have won. With us being seniors, upperclassmen now, there should be no reason why we can’t close out tough games.”

Paul is driven by the same failures. Last season was especially tough on the returning Illini. Illinois opened the season with a 15-3 record and was ranked No. 25 before dropping 12 of its final 14 games.

“I want to have a better year this year than I have collectively the last three years,” said Paul, who averaged a team-best 14.7 points last year. “I had a chance to make it to the tournament and win a game my sophomore year. I want to do more than that this year.

“Just being an underdog is always something that plays a part in how hard you play. I think people are pretty much counting us out. I like that. If there’s a chance to play with a chip on our shoulder, that’s how we should play every time we step on the court.”

Richardson sees the key to the season being his and Paul’s consistency. If they’re both rolling, Richardson doesn’t believe they’ll fall short of their goal.

“We got to stay consistent,” Richardson said. “We can’t have games where we don’t come ready to play. Every game we’re the underdog. I feel like we should go into every game like we’re the underdog. We can’t take any team for granted. On Selection Sunday, little games may mean more than the bigger games. Just looking back at our careers, I don’t think there’s been a time where we’ve both had good games and we lost. I think if we’re playing good every game, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

When new Illinois coach John Groce was asked about his expectations, he wouldn’t make any predictions.

“I made that mistake my first year (at Ohio,)” Groce said. “I got caught up in wins, losses, all that stuff. The last three years I was at Ohio we never really talked about we’re going to win this many games, we’re going to do this, do that.

“What we talked about is we’re going to play with some toughness. We’re going to play together. We’re going to execute. We’re going to affect the other team on the defensive end. We’re going to be disruptive. We want to take care of the ball. Here’s our goals in those categories. We got to worry about getting a little better every day. If we do those things, we’re going to have a chance to do some of the things the guys set out as goals for each of those individual teams, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Groce specifically remembered when as an Ohio State assistant in 2005 the media totally missed on where the Buckeyes would end up.

“I think getting into predictions, I think of the 05-06 team we had Ohio State,” Groce said. “I want to say that team on this very day in 05-06 was picked ninth or 10th and won the league. I don’t get caught up in all that. I’m more concerned in the process, doing things the right way and getting caught in the journey.”

Richardson wants to be more than shooter

October, 12, 2012
Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson doesn't mind criticizing his own play over the past few seasons.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Richardson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesD.J. Richardson shot a career-worst 34.8 percent from 3-point range last season.
He admitted he didn't perform as well as he hoped. He said he was a one-dimensional player. He settled too much for 3-pointers. His ball handling wasn't where it needed to be.

Now in his final season, Richardson gets this is his last opportunity to correct all those things or graduate with regrets.

"It's definitely at that point now," Richardson said on Illinois' media day. "No reason for me to hold back. It's my last year. I have to give it everything. I don't want to go out saying shoulda, coulda, woulda. It's time do it now."

Richardson isn't just hoping he improves. He's spent the offseason working to improve.

Richardson did constant ball-handling reps with both hands. He handled the ball while being knocked around with pads. He dribbled in traffic and on the fast break. He dribbled to create his own shot from various ranges and did it to get others open.

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First-year bumps face Groce's fast pace

October, 10, 2012
John Groce AP Photo/David MercerJohn Groce may have to ease into his accustomed tempo during his first year at Illinois.
Illinois first-year coach John Groce is going to have the Illini playing fast-paced basketball at some point. He just isn't sure if it's going to be this season.

Groce, who came to Illinois via Ohio, has always preferred to play a high-tempo game. His Ohio teams averaged 67.7 possessions a game in four years. By comparison, Illinois averaged 63.7 possessions during Big Ten play last season and Iowa led the conference with an average of 65.8.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPoint guard Tracy Abrams will be asked to transition the Illini offense under John Groce.
What could hold the Illini back from playing such a style this season is Groce's personnel. The Illini have one true point guard in sophomore Tracy Abrams and have to depend on the ball handling of senior shooting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Groce said both seniors have improved in that area, but he'd prefer to have multiple point guards in his offense.

"I say my bigger concern is ballhandling," Groce said during Illinois' media day Wednesday. "I've been saying that for some time. To play the way we want to play, you have to have multiple ball handlers. Guys have certainly gotten better, as I said, over the spring, summer and fall.

"Someone asked me today, 'Are you going to play as fast as you want to play?' I'm not sure yet. Although we certainly want to play fast, long term, we don't want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole. That's not fair to the four seniors who are here. Our job as a staff is find that balance between putting in our system full fledge and also giving this year's team the best chance to be competitive."

Groce was hesitant to say definitively whether his group could play that high tempo because they just haven't had a whole lot of time together. They've had 20 workouts since the spring, but he didn't believe he got a true feel of his team because the practices were so infrequent.

Groce said he would have a better idea of where they stand in the next few weeks, especially with five practices planned from Friday to Sunday.

"Are we going to be able to do that on steroids this year?" said Groce, who has coached two NCAA tournament teams. "That remains to be seen. We still need these next two [to] three weeks of practice where we're practicing every day."

Groce's aggressive style stems some from other coaches, such as Mike D'Antoni, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, but also from his own creativeness and personality.

"Picking up things here and there are from those guys, but I think the most important thing by far, I've said this before, is I'm certainly not perfect, had to learn from mistakes like everybody else. But the one thing I think I did do right from the very beginning when I became a head coach, I said I'm going to be myself," Groce said. "I'm not going to be somebody else.

"How that relates to the offensive end is I have a real conviction that we want to attack, we want to be aggressive. We want to play with the ball in the paint. We want to play with great tempo, with pace and speed. We want to wear you out with a 94-foot game," he said. "That's me. That's who I am, and that's why we play that way."

That's now what he's asking Abrams to do this season. Groce has been encouraged by what he has seen from Abrams since the spring.

A year ago, Abrams was thrust into the starting lineup due to an injury, and he held his own for the most part. He averaged 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers in 21.1 minutes.

"I think Tracy wants to be a lead guard," Groce said. "I think that's half the battle. With who we have right now, as we mentioned, he's going to be our primary ball handler certainly as of today. But there's more to be a lead guard than being 6-foot-1. I always said that in recruiting."

Being a lead guard involves a whole lot more to Groce.

"Sometimes I'll look at different things. Guys will say he's a point guard, and I'll say, 'Why?'" Groce said. "‘Because he's 6-foot tall?' That doesn't make you a point guard. There's more to it than that. Do you understand time and score? Can you make guys better? Do you know who has the hot hand? Can you be the front porch for our defense? Are you vocal in your leadership as well displaying great body language? Are you the extension of the coach on the floor? Can you change speeds and gears? Can you defeat pressure?

"So there's a lot to being a point guard or a lead guard. The one thing I really like about Tracy is he's willing to learn, he picks up stuff quickly, he cares at a high level. That's all you can ask."

Past and present Illinois players reacted Friday to Bruce Weber’s firing on Twitter. Here’s what a number of them wrote:

Former player Deron Williams: “Everything happens for a reason praying for Coach Weber @Coachjhoward [Jerrance Howard] and the rest of the Illinois basketball staff... They will bounce back”

Former player Dee Brown: “I know how much Coach Weber loves his job, love basketball n loved coaching at the best school in the world its a sad day HES A GREAT COACH”

Former player Chester Frazier: “He works his butt off and lives and breathes basketball! And does things the right way! Will do better with tougher players who buy in”

Former player Trent Meacham: “Tough to see Coach Weber go. Great coach and even better man! He's not finished yet and will be successful at his next stop...”

Former player Richard McBride: “Wish I could of made it to the press conference! Much love coach! Can't say it enough”

Junior guard Brandon Paul: “[Gonna] miss Coach Weber..great coach but even a greater person...helped me out w/more than just basketball, will forever be grateful for that!”

Freshman forward Mike Shaw:

“Thanks for everything Coach Weber.. Didn't play a lot this year but learned a lot.. Appreciate everything. Continue to be a great person.” He added: “And good luck with what God has next for you, your family, and the staff. Will never forget everything we been through..”

Freshman forward Nnanna Egwu: “Emotional time for the University of Illinois bball program. Can only wish Coach Weber and his staff the best of luck. Appreciate it all”

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard: “Coach Weber will always have a special place in my heart. He was always there for me no matter what. He truly cares about people and” & “Taught me so much about life and lessons along the way to becoming a good person and he will always be a part of my life. #Love+Respect”

Junior guard D.J. Richardson: “Love coach weber taught me a lot on and off the court...... #Great #memories”

Freshman guard Tracy Abrams: “Thanks to coach weber i got the [opportunity] to play college ball, not only play but be a player. He helped me become the person that I am today. Feels weird to [know] he will not be back to coach me again”

Senior guard Sam Maniscalco: “Appreciate Coach Weber & the opportunity he gave me. Privileged and honored to say I played for such a great coach and even better person!”

Illini, Bruce Weber face uncertain future

March, 8, 2012

As reporters huddled around Bruce Weber for what might have been one of his final news conferences as Illinois head coach, a Big Ten tournament official entered the room to say that time had nearly expired.

“Two minutes,” he yelled.

Weber’s team had just lost to Iowa 64-61 in the opening round of the conference tournament. The loss might have spelled the end of his tenure at Illinois, one that reached its peak with an appearance in the national title game in 2005. But in a win-now landscape, 12 losses in his team’s last 14 games blemished his legacy.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIllinois head coach Bruce Weber couldn't get his team turned around late in the season.
“One minute,” the tourney official announced.

Weber’s flushed face, hoarseness and measured pace suggested that the trials of recent months had truly taken a toll. With each query, he tried to maintain a sense of normalcy.

But when asked about the support he’s received throughout his challenges this season, Weber’s eyes welled up, his voice cracked and tears collected on the bottom rim of his eyelids.

“I can’t explain to you how many people have contacted me. I mean, literally thousands. Guys who don’t even know me,” Weber said.

“We’re going to be closing the Illinois locker room,” the Big Ten tournament official announced again.

Weber’s remarks concluded with talk of a meeting with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. No specifics. A brief smile.

And with that, Weber walked into a room and closed the door, unsure of his fate.

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Iowa 64, Illinois 61

March, 8, 2012

Overview: Both Iowa and Illinois entered the Big Ten tournament in need of a championship to earn a trip to the Big Dance. Iowa had managed to impress in stretches this season (the Hawkeyes swept Wisconsin) and was mentioned as a sleeper in the buildup to the Big Ten tournament. Illinois, however, had fallen on hard times. The Illini had lost 11 of their past 13 -- a stretch that might cost Bruce Weber his job -- prior to Thursday’s 64-61 loss to Iowa.

After a back-and-forth first half that featured a 50 percent shooting clip for Illinois and a 46 percent mark for Iowa (Illinois had a 31-27 lead at halftime after a D.J. Richardson 3-pointer at the buzzer), Illinois stormed out to a 40-33 advantage just minutes in the second half. But Iowa returned fire with a 22-8 run that gave the Hawkeyes a 55-48 advantage midway through the second half.

It was just a four-point game in the final minute, and a crucial Iowa turnover seemed to put Illinois in a position to change the outcome. But the Illini coughed the ball up before they could do anything with that vital possession. Joseph Bertrand hit a 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds to play, cutting Iowa’s lead to one (62-61). But a pair of free throws by Matt Gatens put the Hawkeyes ahead again by three.

Turning point: The Illini appeared to possess a little mojo at the start of the second half, but Gatens squashed that momentum with a pair of crucial buckets near the 14-minute mark. Gatens hit a deep three, then dunked off a turnover on the other end. The game turned off that stretch. Iowa began playing with more vigor, which led to the run that turned the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor.

Key player: Gatens was a star for the Hawkeyes. He scored 20 on 7-for-12 shooting. Beyond the box score, however, the senior stayed calm when Illinois started to pull away at the start of the second half. He also had three rebounds and an assist. He converted all four of his free throw attempts, including two in the final seconds.

Key stat: The Illini committed 12 turnovers compared to Iowa’s six. The Illini went 7-for-25 from beyond the arc.

Miscellaneous: The Illini made this game far more difficult than it had to be with tough shots toward the end of the shot clock … Meyers Leonard scored 18 points in what might have been his final game at Illinois … Freshman Aaron White (13 points) could be a Big Ten star next year.

What’s next: Iowa moves on to face Michigan State at noon on Friday. Illinois will probably end up in the NIT. The bigger question is how long Weber will be on the sideline.