Illinois freshmen Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson got off to hot starts to their college careers. Paul had 22 and 20 points in his first two games, and Richardson hit for 14 in his first game and 15 in the third. It came easily for them, perhaps too easily. As coach Bruce Weber describes, notoriety encourages opponents to learn about you and play you tougher. Paul is struggling with that right now.
"I don't know if you want to call it the 'Freshman Wall.' He's lost some confidence. The intensity of the game, the number of possessions is less, people flying at you, shooting, trying to get open. They scout you and guard you.
"You have to adjust to that. He's gotta start doing it in practice, picking up that intensity. It's something we've talked about with him since the season started. But some things came so easily for him early, I think he kind of thought, 'Hey, I can keep moving at this speed.'
"And now all of a sudden he can't do that. He's got the ability, he's got the intelligence to make the changes. He's gotta fight through it and start doing it in practice."
Paul cares, even if his facial expressions and demeanor don't always show it. It shows up in how he plays. Against Penn State, he tried to force a couple drives and ended up throwing up wild shots that had no chance of finding the mark. And in Thursday's practice, he was flustered when three layups rolled off the rim. He is fighting it right now, wondering when the ball will go in the hole for him again.
"He just kind of keeps an even keel," Weber relates. "Nothing seems to bother him. He misses a shot and just plays. Right now, deep down he's feeling a lack of confidence, trying to figure it out. Coach is saying one thing, but I've played this way all my life. How do I find the mix of it?
"I want him to shoot, but he's got to work to get open shots. If you're in a little bit of a funk or slump, you can't take tough shots to get out of it. You've got to find ways to get easy shots.
"And then he's trying to hit home runs, make big plays right away. Brandon the other day tried to make big plays that really hurt us. Be like Billy (Cole) and Jeff (Jordan), be solid and you'll get extra minutes."
Richardson has had some difficult games, and he lost his starting assignment once. But he has adapted more quickly than Paul.
"D.J.'s adjustment has been a little easier. He's made the transition a little easier. I think the one thing that helped D.J. is he went to the prep school and played a national schedule, traveled and played in some pretty intense games.
"When I watched D.J. as a sophomore and Brandon as a sophomore, D.J. was a little more intense way back then compared to Brandon. They both have great abilities. I think D.J.'s opportunities in the prep school and also his natural intensity level have been the two things that have helped him make that adjustment."
Weber always says to look for other ways of helping the team if you are in a shooting slump. It takes maturity to refocus on other parts of your game when the part you care about most is out of sorts. Like Paul, Richardson's scoring average has gone downhill recently. But in a sign of acclimating to the college game, he decided to improve his defense and physical presence on the court.
"The other night, especially on the defensive end taking the challenge of Talor Battle (he began to show toughness). I encouraged him to watch tape. He wrote things down, the keys. Motivational speakers tell you to focus on things and write it down.
"I don't know why D.J. did it, but he did it and he had success from it. Coach McClain showed it (the list on D.J.'s locker) to our players after the game. It came through. Maybe he's starting to understand the mental preparation, and maybe it will carry over to the other guys.
"I don't think D.J. had ever watched a tape on his own before. It's just something I threw out to those guys. That's one of the things Chester (Frazier) always did. He'd watch not only one but a couple games, and he'd watch it not just as a fan but as a preparation thing. Hopefully, D.J. latches on and it becomes a contagious thing where other guys start taking it to heart and put in that extra preparation."
The freshmen have to acclimate to the speed and complexity of the game. Richardson may have turned the corner, while Paul is still finding his way. Both will eventually figure it out. The Illini will benefit when they do.