'I Love That Kid'

There's more to D.J. Richardson's game than made or missed 3-point baskets. And coach John Groce is clear on that point.

CHAMPAIGN - Late in Saturday's win over Ohio State, with the Buckeyes mounting a last chance charge, Illinois needed a basket.

D.J. Richardson lined up a wide-open 3, with the Illini needing a boost after Ohio State had cut a 25-point deficit to 14.

On a macro level, the senior guard was just the man for the job. A career 37 percent shooter from downtown, Richardson has hit more 3s than all but four players in school history.

But considering the micro, the shot may not have left a trail of confidence on it's way to swishing through the net.

A native of Peoria, Richardson began his final season at his usual pace -- shooting 36 percent (28-77) from 3 in Illinois' first 10 games. His 12.2 points per game was second best on the team and ahead of his career average.

For whatever reason, however, Richardson's shots stopped going in around mid-December.

In the five-game stretch starting with Norfolk State and ending in the loss to Purdue Jan. 2, Richardson shot 17 percent from 3 (5-28) and averaged less than eight points.

The poor shooting led to message board chirping from those wondering what was wrong with Richardson and if he should remain in the starting lineup.

Adding to the doubts, Richardson was 2-of-10 from the field against Ohio State prior to the release of his last shot, that look from 3 when the Illini needed one to go in the most.

Despite the odds, the shot swished in. The Buckeyes run was done. The game was over.

And afterwards, Illinois coach John Groce, asked about the importance of the shot for Richardson's confidence, took aim and fired at those who doubted his player.

"I'll be honest, I'm tired of people making a big deal about his deal," he said. "He's gonna keep shooting because I'm gonna tell him to keep shooting."

A look back at Richardson's past three seasons reveals similar stretches of shooting woes.

As a freshman, Richardson had a six-game run where he shot 23.5 percent (8-34) from downtown. His sophomore year, he had an eight-game stretch where he went 8-for-32 from triple (25 percent). And his junior year included the worst slump until this past December -- a seven-game run of 22 percent shooting from 3 (10-45).

In each case, Richardson shot himself out of the struggles because that's what shooters do.

All the numbers, percentages and trends look fancy on paper. But for a gunner like Richardson, every take has a 50 percent chance.

It either goes in or it doesn't.

And the truth is, while Richardson's offensive game is somewhat one-dimensional that's not all his worth as a piece in Groce's system.

"He defends, plays the other team's best guy almost every night," Groce reminded the dissenters. "Hardly anyone talks about that. He rebounds. It's not like he's an above the rim athlete, OK. He screens. He dives on loose balls, he plays to win and I'm not trading him, OK. I love that kid."

Richardson needs seven made 3s to move into third place in school history. And while he probably won't catch Dee Brown or Cory Bradford at the top of the list, as long as Groce as a say he'll shoot enough to make a run at them. Regardless of the percentages, Richardson will be out there doing the other things nobody likes to mention.

That's what gives the Illini a chance to win. That's what makes Richardson valuable on nights the shots aren't going in. That's what keeps him out there, lining up the next 3 to take without hesitation, no matter what's happened prior to that moment.

"He loves playing for the state school, now. He loves Illinois," Groce said. "It means something to him that he gets to put that uniform on. He's a great teammate."

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