LINCOLN, Neb. — When Illinois coach John Groce talks about D.J. Richardson, the first few talking points have little to do with basketball.
“He’s the best, I love that kid,” Groce said. “He’s a great kid, he’s got a great personality. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do academically, as a person and I love D.J. He’s a great, great kid.”
The two connected quickly when Groce was hired in late March. Richardson typically pops into his coach’s office just to chat, usually it’s not about basketball.
“We have all-around conversations,” Richardson said. “I like his personality. He likes mine.”
And with Illinois riding a three-game losing streak into today’s Big Ten game at Nebraska (7:30 p.m., BTN), the 6-foot-3 senior from Peoria is just the guy the first-year coach wants on the floor helping lead the charge.
Sure, he likes the 10.8 points per game (third best on the team), the 4.5 rebounds (tied for second best) and the stingy defense against the opposition’s top perimeter player. But more than that Groce likes the intangibles the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year brings, both physically and between the ears.
“He makes a lot of hustle plays for us, a lot of winning plays,” Groce said. “He for sure is a guy who can mentally handle adversity and move on and that’s called mental toughness. He has that.”
Though the scoring numbers might suggest otherwise, Richardson would be the first to point out he’d like to make more shots. He’s made a three-pointer in a career-high 25 consecutive games, but at 30.3 percent (40 for 132) from behind the three-point line Richardson is on pace to shoot lower than the 37.2 percent clip he had for his career entering the season.
But he and his coaches point out the other areas in his game where Richardson has stepped up to help the Illini.
“He does a lot of those little things you need for your team to be successful, more than just scoring,” assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “D.J. brings a lot of energy to your team. He’s one of those guys where you know exactly what you’re going to get every time you put him in the game.”
With the shooting woes has come some criticism. Groce came to his guard’s defense earlier this season when he was continuously asked about Richardson’s shooting slump. Richardson said he doesn’t pay attention to anything outside the confines of his team.
“People are going to say what they want to anyway,” he said. “You can’t really help what people have to say, you can’t let that get in your head. You hear it, you see it, you just got to deal with it. I’m not too much worried with what people have to say.
“I just have to do whatever I can to get myself better, make myself feel better. Words don’t hurt me, what people have to say. We’re just trying to win.”
That being said, Richardson recognizes there are parts of his game he can fine-tune to help Illinois get back on track in its bid to reach the NCAA tournament. Walker said he’s made tremendous strides as a ball-handler since the staff arrived in the spring and they’d like to continue to see Richardson get to the basket when the opportunity presents itself.
“When I have a chance to go to the basket, I go to the basket. I don’t try to force it,” Richardson said. “They want me to be aggressive and be in a scorer’s mentality all the time and making aggressive plays and that’s what I work on when I’m with (Walker), going to the basket, taking contact, shooting pull-ups and trying to make plays for others and myself when I’m around the basket.”
Winning is all that matters to Richardson, who has made 235 career three-pointers and needs two more to move into third place on Illinois’ all-time list.
Another thing Groce loves about Richardson is the guard’s love for the University of Illinois.
“He takes pride in playing for the state school,” Groce said.
“It’s important, especially with my days winding down,” Richardson said. “This is a very important year for myself and the other three seniors as well. This is a big thing, to be able to put on this orange and blue jersey to see the fans, the love and how everything is around this area.”
No matter what comes of this Illinois basketball season, when Richardson comes back to visit long after his playing days are over he’ll be a guy who people want to be around, a person they want to follow.
“D.J.’s got such an infectious personality. He’s always upbeat and he’s always looking at the bright and positive side of life,” Walker said. “That’s kind of the way our staff is and you want to be around those type of people and obviously D.J. is one of those guys.”