Illinois freshmen D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey were on campus during the summer. They took a class or two and played pickup games with their new teammates. That was easy compared with what hit them the first day of fall classes.
They now have a full school schedule. Richardson attended Findlay Prep in Las Vegas to develop better study habits and improve his academic standing prior to admission to Illinois. That experience helped, but university work is much more involved for him.
"Yeah, it's a big adjustment now. Going to classes, going to see a tutor every day, it's a lot of hard work. It's way worse than prep school. It's a lot more work than I had in my past."
Time management is essential.
"You've got to watch your minutes every day. During the day, you've got class and you hang out with your teammates. That's kind of like prep school because we didn't have much time there either. But here, you are working hard all the time."
Richardson did become accustomed to more rigorous basketball practices while leading Findlay to a national prep school championship. That has helped him in the intense small group sessions run by head coach Bruce Weber and his assistants prior to the beginning of fall practice.
"Yeah, it did. I'm used to high tempo basketball practices and workouts. In Peoria (Central), it wasn't like that. You could go at the speed you wanted to. Here, they make you go fast, and you've got to keep your tempo up. It makes your teammates better."
The 30-45 minute sessions are nothing compared with the three hour practices that lie ahead, but the players are running constantly. The Illini use a motion offense, so everyone is moving all the time. It requires great conditioning. Richardson found the workouts exciting, but he admitted preferring practices where they could shoot once in awhile.
A major focus in these early workouts is understanding the motion offense and how to set up yourself and teammates for shots. What part is most challenging for Richardson?
"Just getting out and keeping our spacing. It helps us get into the lane and get open shots from the three point line."
Richardson is an early favorite to land a starting position, and that is his goal as well.
"Hopefully, I do get a starting position. But I'm still gonna cheer my team on. I just want to bring the stuff they'll be missing with Chester (Frazier) leaving. Chester brought defense and leadership. That's what I want to bring to the team, and that's what Coach Weber asks for."
He is also being trained as a possible point guard to back up the Illini's lone point Demetri McCamey. He has the ability and willingness to set his teammates up for better shots, but there is much to learn. Speaking before Bertrand had arthroscopic knee surgery, Richardson related that all three freshman guards are being tested as point guards, and they are all showing improvement.
"Yeah, a lot. Everybody's getting smarter with the ball. Our ball handling is getting better. Me, Brandon and Joseph are all playing point guard. And Tyler has been hitting the three and posting up."
Former Illini great Deron Williams was on campus recently, and he imparted some of his vast knowledge of the point guard position onto the freshmen guards.
"Deron has been teaching us point guard skills."
Richardson has great respect for Williams and watched his play closely.
"I watch his ball handling and the way he gets into the seams. He can create for others. He can get into the lane anytime he wants to. So that's what I want to do, ball handling and being a leader on the court."
He and his teammates have benefitted greatly from working with several former Illini.
"It's great. It gives me confidence going into the season this year. Him coming in, and then Dee (Brown) coming in awhile ago with Luther (Head), it's a great experience for all of us. We're all happy and thankful for him coming in."
Richardson provided specifics on his classes for first semester.
"I've got Communications, small group with Mike Davis and Stan Simpson. Jeff Jordan (former Illini) is also in that class. Rhetoric, and I'm also taking Atmosphere, a weather class I have with Brandon Paul, and theater, a class of 200 students. Theater is okay, and every other Wednesday I've got off. So I like it."