Illinois obtained Jereme Richmond's signature on a basketball scholarship tender in November, and the superstar has ambitions of leading the Illini to a national championship. But in the meantime, he hopes to help his Waukegan High School team to a state championship.
Waukegan coach Ron Ashlaw scheduled tough opponents, and a couple losses followed. The Bulldogs traveled to Marion for an evening game against Columbia, Georgia in the Marion Shootout one day before playing Class 3A state champion Champaign Centennial in the Shootout at the Hall on the Illinois campus. The loss to Centennial was not unexpected.
"Those games are just getting us ready for the state championship," Richmond explained. "We've played a lot of good teams that have exploited our flaws, so those are good games to learn from and get better. That's how we have to look at it right now."
They also had a 6 hour bus ride to play Ames, Iowa, for an ESPN game against Iowa's best team. Richmond neutralized North Carolina bound superstar Harrison Barnes, but two other sizeable post players did in the much smaller Bulldogs. Tired legs produced lethargic results.
"Those things are good for our players and the program to face adversity, not just a tough opponent but tough conditions on the road," Ashlaw explained. "We had 64 fans and they had 6400 fans. That's something we thought would be good for our kids.
"When that kind of opportunity comes along, regardless of anything else you have to take it. It was good for our school. We're hoping it will pay off."
Richmond agreed about the conditions in Ames.
"Yeah, that was tough getting off the bus while they were fresh. We had no legs left. Those were the circumstances, so we had to go by it."
Speaking after his team's first round win over Aurora West in the Pontiac Holiday Basketball Tournament, Richmond expected his team to be conditioned for four straight quality games in three days against good competition.
"It will show how good a condition we are in. We aren't really worried about it. This year we're on a different mission. Things like being tired should be the last thing on our minds right now."
Last year, Waukegan lost focus in a semifinal game and failed to reach the Pontiac championship. It served as a good reminder this year according to Richmond.
"Yeah, we can't take any teams lightly. Last year we did that and Plainfield upset us by one point. This year we stressed we can't take anyone lightly. We just have to stay focused on every team."
Stay focused they did. After whipping Aurora West 71-52, they fought off a much-improved Danville quintet 89-80, overpowered Peoria Manual 73-53 and won the championship with a 59-51 conquest of athetic and deep Chicago Simeon. Richmond scored 25, 31, 23 and 23 in the four games, and he averaged 13.5 rebounds per game.
Ashlaw has continued to see improvement in Richmond's game each year. The 6'-7" Richmond can play anywhere on the court for the Bulldogs.
"He's such a dominant player inside and outside for us. At the next level, he will be a perimeter player I'm pretty sure. But for us, if we need to have some rebounding presence or interior scoring presence, he's able to do that."
He has also matured into a team leader. Instead of verbally attacking teammates for mistakes, he is now teaching and encouraging. Ashlaw has noticed the improvement.
"Tremendous. Season by season, game by game, it's more and more effective and more confidence-building for the rest of us."
"I'm trying to become more of a leader. I think getting better skill-wise happens in the off season. I'm trying to be more vocal and lead the team."
Waukegan has two major concerns if it wants to win a state championship. One, it has little size to help Richmond fight for boards and points in the paint. And it misses Colin Nickerson. The Fairfield freshman was talented enough last year to keep his friend Richmond from getting all the defensive attention.
"We definitely miss him," Richmond agrees. "But we can't look back on that. He's following his own career right now, so we've got to focus on our situation. But we truly miss him."
The slender Richmond didn't see the Illinois game with an extremely physical Missouri outfit recently. He is focusing on the high school season, but he realizes the physicality of the college game will be a challenge for him next year.
"I've thought about it, but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."