Dancing Once Again

While it's fun to look ahead and think about what might happen in the NCAA Tournament, for the players at Illinois, it's fun to be back.

CHICAGO - D.J. Richardson has been on both ends of the emotional spectrum on Selection Sunday, been both included and excluded in the famous Madness of March.

So excuse him if he doesn't care what seed the Illini receive in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or if he lacks preference of opponent or where the game takes place.

"I just want to be in the tournament," he said following Illinois' loss to Indiana Friday.

Simply making tournament means so much to the senior guard because it's his last season, his last chance. It means so much because he doesn't take it for granted. He recalls how it felt last year, when the Illini missed the Big Dance for the second time in three years.

"Um, you know it was disappointing," Richardson said. "But that's why it's good to play four years of college. I had another shot. We were juniors and now we have the opportunity to play there again."

In 2011, Richardson, along with fellow seniors Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Kevin Beradini and junior Joe Bertrand, got a taste of the tournament. The Illini beat UNLV in the first round before falling to Kansas in the round of 32.

Richardson still can recall his feelings when he learned the team was in the bracket.

"I kicked my feet on the air and slammed them hard," he said. "It was a great experience. You know, we played there, got one win and hopefully we can make a run (again)."

After a 2-7 start in Big Ten play, Illinois won five in a row, a streak that began by beating then-No. 1 Indiana. Winning seven of the last 11 propelled the team back into the bracket after the January slump. Although the Illini finished with a losing conference record (8-10), the statistics say they're solidly in the field. Four wins against the RPI top 25, six against Top 50 teams, and a strength of schedule ranked fifth nationally not only make the case that Illinois is a lock for the bracket, but also speak to it's chance once play begins.

"We play in the toughest conference in the nation," Paul said. "If we play anywhere else I feel like we have a chance with anybody in the nation. Obviously we have won some tough games. We came back."

Adding evidence to Paul's claim, it appears likely that Indiana and Gonzaga, two teams the Illini beat in the regular season, could both be No. 1 seeds.

"We're capable of beating anybody in the tournament," Richardson said. "We showed that, you know, we played with some of the best. In the Big Ten, there's so many great teams in here it's going to be scary. Hopefully we'll get a good seed and we'll be ready for it."

The who, what, when and where will be announced tonight at 5 p.m. That's when speculation over seeding will give way to speculation regarding actual games. And while it's fun to look ahead and think about what might happen, for the players at Illinois that have been both included and left out, it's fun to be back.

Said Paul, "We're just excited for Sunday to see we had a goal going into the season, so we're excited for Sunday to see what happens."

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