He scored five points against Jackson State and 7 versus Savannah State early in his freshman season and was beginning to see significant playing time. That is, until a severe injury that require surgery ended his season and sapped his strength. He qualified for a redshirt.
Last year, Semrau played without confidence and received minimal playing time before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Some wondered whether he would ever help the Illini. So did Rich.
"Yeah, it was pretty hard. Now, I just try to forget about it. I focus on what we can do now, what we can do in the future. Look ahead instead of look at the past."
In the offseason, Coach Bruce Weber told Rich he needed help at the center spot and challenged him to compete for the position. Fortunately for the Illini, Semrau accepted the challenge.
"I'm not a quitter. "This is my choice, and I'm gonna stick with it. I didn't want to sit on the bench again this year, so I said I had to go out and get ready."
The 6'-10", 240 pounder has good athleticism and shooting touch for his size, but his confidence dwindled to practically nothing through those two difficult years. That confidence is on an upswing again, and he knows why.
"I'd say the hard work over the summer. I was persistent. I told myself this is the year. We can do big things and I want to be a part of it. I just told myself to go out every day and work as hard as I can, and good things are gonna happen."
Still, the transition from finesse forward to a post player is difficult if not impossible for most players. Semrau has accepted the challenge and has shown more assertiveness in practice than ever before.
"When I came here, coach was always telling me to go to the basket. Ok, if that's what they want, that's what I've got to do.
"Coach basically told me to be a 5 man. Besides CJ (Jackson), I'm probably the strongest guy on the team. They needed me to be more physical than anyone else. With the Big Ten, you've got a lot of big guys at Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State.
"Right now, after I establish myself as a physical player, and then when that time comes, hopefully I will be more physical and aggressive than them. I can win out the personal battle. I just tell myself, be more aggressive and show people I mean business."
He has also picked up post defense.
"Oh, yeah. I've been watching tape a lot more. I see what I need to do. My attitude right now is it's easier for me on defense than for the guy with the ball."
Semrau is enthusiastic about Illinois' potential this season. And he's comfortable talking about because he's earned his place on the team.
"We had a great summer. We changed up our program a little bit. We did a lot more 5 on 5, 4 on 4 in the summer. So I think we are a lot more comfortable on the floor. So now we've just got to do our thing."
Rich Semrau needs to experience success to maintain his confidence level during the season. But he is off to a good start. If he keeps up the hard work, he can be a valuable contributor to the Illini team.