With the exception of Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, the Illinois basketball team will be devoid of seniors. As a result, juniors D.J. Richarson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey need to provide the experience and leadership to nurture and guide younger players. Illini coach Bruce Weber has installed D.J. Richardson as the captain, and he looks forward to the challenge.
"I'll be the captain next year. It will be tough, but I was a captain in high school and co-captain at prep school when we went 33-0. It's going to be interesting. I'm gonna do the best I can to help the team win."
Richardson has leadership qualities, but he lost his confidence during a midseason sophomore slump. He realizes he must be strong for his team even if he isn't playing well.
"It's a big responsibility. We're coming off an up-and-down season last year. Just a chance to run a college team would be pretty exciting. It would put a lot of pressure on my back, but Brandon and Tyler will do a good job helping me I think."
Richardson promises his days of crawling into a self-imposed dungeon of depression are over.
"I'll be a leader by example. Guys already see me in the gym 2 or 3 times a day. When the freshmen get here, they'll see the same thing."
Fortunately, Richardson regained his mojo, shooting a high percentage in the win over UNLV and the tough loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. At least, he's going into the off season with upward momentum.
"It gives me a boost over the summer. If you get a chance, be ready and stay focused. It helps me stay motivated to get ready for next season."
At least six new players will join the team for summer workouts. All must be acclimated to college life and begin the tough work of preparing for the rigors of college basketball. Richardson will have his hands full making sure all are cut into their responsibilities.
"Me and Brandon have to do a good job of bringing the guys in and letting them know their roles. They need a jumpstart. When we were freshmen, Brandon didn't have that, Tyler didn't have that, and I didn't have that. Last year's freshmen didn't have that either. We've got to be serious and get an early start this summer."
Only six scholarship players and two walkons are around for formal spring workouts with Illini coaches, but Richardson sees improvement since the end of the season.
"We're doing a good job of getting better by the day. We lost a lot of good players, a lot of seniors and Jereme (Richmond). It will be interesting to see how we prepare and get better."
Richardson was asked how Richmond's departure might affect the team.
"Jereme's a good player, he has potential. We just look at it and stay motivated. He was a key player for our team last year. We've just got to look at it as needing to motivating ourselves to do better."
The 6'-3" Peorian says winning a game in the NCAA Tournament is a big motivator for next season.
"A lot. Everyone's prepared now."
However, the Kansas loss was also a reminder of how important it is to have a consistent inside presence. Richardson singled out Meyers Leonard and Griffey as needing to bring their "A" games next year.
"We got to go against Kansas, one of the best teams in the country. They had two big guys down low, and that helped let Meyers know that we need him next year. He is an inside presence, and we need him down low next year.
"Freshman year, Tyler did a good job. He started some games for Mike Davis and came in and knocked some big shots down. He helped us win a couple games. I've been talking to Tyler, and he's been staying in the gym. Tyler's gonna be a big key to the team next year."
Richardson is excited for next season. He believes the Illini will surprise some people.
"Yeah. Look at Butler. They were an underrated team. Nobody thought much of them this year. We're an underrated team next year. We've just got to pull out some games we need to win."