CHAMPAIGN – Watching D.J. Richardson play defense at Findlay Prep, coach Todd Simon saw a lot that he liked. But there was one little move, smart and subtle, that really caught his eye.
“He would get low defensively and get a hand low, almost between the [ball-handler’s] knees and kind of direct guys in the direction he wanted them,” said Simon, who was an assistant in Richardson’s single season at the Nevada prep school. “We call it the rudder hand. ... He would come up with a lot of stops and a lot of steals just by that slight little hand thing.”
Richardson was an all-state performer his junior year in Peoria, and already had committed to Illinois. But on that team he needed something special to break into a lineup that already produced three NBA players – Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson.
On his own almost 1,700 miles from home, the kid from the blue-collar town by the Illinois River found what he needed in skills he brought with him: Hard-nosed, smart defense.
Defense is at the top of a long list of things – many of which don’t make the stat sheet – that have kept Richardson anchored in the Illinois lineup since the start of his freshman year. Others – Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard, Demetri McCamey – have gotten most of the attention. Defense doesn’t make many highlights, but it keeps you on the floor. And Richardson has started 125 of the 131 games the team has played since he came to Champaign.
“I want to win,” the plain-spoken Richardson says about his approach.
But the seasons between that first one on campus and this one, Richardson’s last, have been quieter than the start suggested they might be.
He was the Big Ten’s freshman of the year in 2009-10. He started 35 of Illinois’ 36 games in a season that ended in the NIT, hit almost 40 percent of his 177 3-pointers and averaged 10.5 points a game.
But Richardson’s offense has been a lot like Illinois’ fortunes since then – up and down, sometimes wildly so.
Richardson’s sophomore year ended early in the NCAA tournament, with one win and a loss. His junior season melted down in a collapse that cost Illini coach Bruce Weber his job.
Watching from out West, Simon suspects Richardson’s freshman season set the bar too high for what was to come.
“No question,” said Simon, who keeps in touch with his former player. “He probably put a bull’s-eye on himself in the league.”
Those first three seasons – and especially the swings of the past two – have given Richardson motivation to make everything he can out of this one.
“This is my last strike at it, and I want to go out with a good senior year,” he said, pointing out that his chances are running out. “It’s coming down to the end real fast.”
Richardson remains a streaky shooter.
He was stuck in a slump that mirrored the team’s own skid earlier this season. Illinois appeared to waste a hot 12-0 start by losing eight of 11. The Illini fell out of the Top 25 and talk of a trip back to the NCAAs was starting to fade.
Through the worst of that stretch, Richardson’s scoring dropped to below 8 points a game, and Illini coach John Groce heard from fans and reporters who wondered what was wrong.
After a game back in January, Groce said he was done with questions about Richardson’s role.
“I’m tired of people making a big deal about his deal. He’s going to keep shooting because I’m going to tell him to keep shooting,” Groce said before explaining all the things Richardson does to keep himself in the lineup — diving for loose balls and getting rebounds in spite of his lean 6-foot-3 frame. “He defends the other team’s best guy almost every night — hardly anyone talks about that.”
Groce has talked regularly about the bond he has with Richardson, one that the player hinted at even on the day the coach was hired last spring. Richardson said he traded texts that day with D.J. Cooper, one of Groce’s players at Ohio. Cooper had nothing bad to say.
“He just told me when this coach comes here, it would feel like heaven,” Richardson said.
That bond and Groce’s stubborn faith have paid off.
Illinois (20-9, 7-8 Big Ten) has won five of its last six and is likely no more than a win or two away from an NCAA spot. And Richardson — defensive stopper — has found his touch again. He’s averaging 16 points a game over his last eight and had 23 in the biggest Illini win so far, a 74-72 stunner over No. 1 Indiana.
No one played a bigger role in the comeback that gave Illinois that win than Richardson. Illinois was down by 10 down the stretch, but Richardson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, followed closely by another jumper that tied the game with just over a minute to play. Then with time all but gone, he swiped the ball from Victor Oladipo and broke down-court for the basket — the layup was swatted away but it set up the buzzer-beater that sealed the win.
The 23-point night led to Richardson being named Big Ten player of the week — his first in his four seasons at Illinois.
The quiet Richardson called it simply “a blessing.”
Now Groce has asked him to be a lot more vocal, which he says is working.
“We’ve had a couple of times in practice here the last couple of weeks where, as a coach we’ll redo a drill,” Groce said.
“But when Richardson says, ‘Hold up, we’re doing the drill wrong, coach, put the clock on, it wasn’t good enough,’ that’s when you know they’re getting it.”
Richardson has stopped the questions about his play on his own — scoring will do that, and wins certainly help. But back in January his biggest defender was ready to bring an end to the talk.
“I’m not trading him,” Groce said at the end of his mild rant. “I love that kid. Next question.”
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidmercerap