Richmond loud, proud

Richmond loud, proud

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The Orange Krush was bouncing, the longtimers in A Section stood from their chairbacks, and the Assembly Hall had turned to assembled madness.

Fans went bananas as Illinois built an eight-point lead against No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday.

And Jereme Richmond had that look again. You know the look. That clenched jaw, chin jutting out, eyes shooting lasers.

But what exactly is that look? Is it intensity? Is it fake?

Saying, "I know the look," Richmond explained it in depth, making it clear there's nothing phony about his emotional display.

"I just want to scream my lungs out. I just want to scream my heart out sometimes," he said prior to No. 20 Illinois' game at Indiana today (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).

"Say if I got a big rebound or made a big basket, I just want to scream my heart out. In college I'm learning it's just a game of runs and the game's never over. I want to mask that intensity, but it just comes out all over my face. I kind of got to hold it in sometimes.

"I don't want to get too crazy and then they come down and hit a three or something. But it's just something that's in me."

Why explain a facial expression? Because it is Richmond's intensity – as much as his athletic ability – that can alter the Illinois basketball season in a big way.

He competes with an edge – and sometimes on the edge, evidenced by technical fouls in the exhibition and regular seasons. He's the kind of competitor a rival like Indiana (10-10, 1-6) will learn quickly to dislike, and isn't it about time Illinois (14-6, 4-3) had one of those again?

Sure, the McDonald's All-American gives the Illini another rebounder, another scorer, another passer. But he brings something more. He's wired differently than the rest of the team. He has a certain passion that Illinois is sorely lacking – and has been for some time.

That's where the look comes in.

"He's got that fire, that spirit. He doesn't back down," coach Bruce Weber said. "It's something that we have missed on this team. If he can bring that to the table – and if he gets more and more confidence – I think it's going to help us."

In a strange way, Richmond might be the only player wired like the head coach. Both are high-intensity, 24/7. Neither has a hobby outside basketball.

In the rare instance they aren't thinking basketball – such as Weber discussing his beloved Packers (his Super Bowl pick: Green Bay 34-24) or Richmond discussing his first moustache ("I'm proud of it") – you witness their normalcy.

But not around the basketball court. There, Weber and Richmond are wired with emotion. There, the game is all that matters, Richmond wired like a simmering Kenyon Martin, Weber like a sideline drill sergeant. Their similarities help explain why Weber has such a fondness for the freshman. They are, perhaps, more alike than either realizes.

It also helps explain why their Type A personalities sometimes clash – and will clash in the future.

"We've become a lot more vocal to each other," Richmond said. "He's understanding my personality and the other way around, so it's good."

"I wasn't going to be easy on him," Weber said. "I wanted him to earn it, and he did."

Since Richmond's two-practice hiatus, when he escaped home to Waukegan and was held out of a game at Wisconsin, he has returned like a whirlwind. He topped a career-high 14 points against No. 17 Michigan State with his first double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) against No. 1 Ohio State.

Richmond's emergence figures to have a more lasting impact on the program than a win (vs. Michigan State) and a loss (Ohio State).

"I'm kind of just feeding off what people were saying about me wanting to leave, not being happy, things like that," Richmond said. "I kind of just want to make it a point and kind of close all those rumors out and show people that I'm here and I'm ready to learn and get better.

"I'm having a great time. I couldn't ask for a better coaching staff, all the way down to the managers, especially my teammates. Everyone does a good job of making me feel like I'm one of their own. There's no place I'd rather be."

Among the staffers, assistant coach Jerrance Howard is tightest with Richmond. They share a long hug at center court before each game. Howard even traveled to Waukegan to be with Richmond during his stay at home. Both reiterated he never considered a transfer.

"That's crazy," Howard said, adding the 2010 Illinois Mr. Basketball didn't stay committed to Illinois for four years to leave after one semester.

"Any time a kid is struggling you're worried about him. And I was there with him as well. So I went through it with him," Howard said. "All the guys did a good job of supporting him and being there for him. I definitely was worried about him, not as a basketball player but just as a person and everything he's dealing with.

"I was hurting because we've got such a great relationship, almost a father-son or best-friend relationship. I look at him like a son. It was painful to see him go through it. To see him bounce back and play like he is right now, it's really a good feeling inside."

Richmond went home, in part, to be with his younger sister. He's especially close with Jordan, wearing a tattoo of her name. Still, Richmond, who turns 19 on Selection Sunday (March 13), admitted he had some making up to do after bailing on his teammates.

"Especially because we lost (76-66 at Wisconsin), and I feel like I could have played a big part in that basketball game," said Richmond, who likely will return to the starting lineup today. "That's not saying Wisconsin is less of a team than what they are. But I kind of made it a point to come back and just show my teammates I'm here for the long haul to do the best that I can."

"It makes the interior passing a lot easier. He can score in a lot of different ways," center Mike Tisdale said. "He's got the shot fake down. He makes it easier for me and Mike (Davis) to make passes."

Just as Illinois is a different team with Richmond, he is a different player than he was in November or December. In fall workouts, he would switch between working with the guards and working with the big men. Now he's recognized as a frontcourt player.

"I think a lot of things hit him at first. There were a lot of high expectations, people talking about one-and-done," Howard said. "His big thing was just practicing hard and just getting better, not being a robot as Deron (Williams) was talking to him about. He just got more comfortable.

"In (offseason) workouts guys were saying he really dominated. Then when classes came and he had study hall and it kind of took a toll on him. I think when practices started we were playing him on the perimeter a little too much. I think now everybody's seeing that he's really productive on the block."

Richmond is taking four classes in his second semester. He described classes in his first semester as "real good," something you never would have heard in high school.

"I had three C's and two B's. For me, considering my past in high school, that's a positive for me," Richmond said. "There's still a lot more to improve on – getting those C's up to B's and higher – but after my experience in the first semester I can do it."

Of all his trophies, Richmond keeps only one in his possession: the gold medal he won with USA Basketball. His mom, Kim, has the others, including his McDonald's All-American gear and Mr. Basketball trophy.

"That one (the gold medal) is a little more special," said Richmond, who likely will earn an invitation to compete with USA Basketball in the coming offseason.

Illinois would prefer if he keeps the look, too. It signals Richmond is locked in.

At one point in Saturday's game against Ohio State, the freshman stood tall in a huddle and shouted, "We will not lose!" It was the same intensity he showed during his second varsity game at North Shore Country Day, when as a high school freshman he slapped the backboard and drew a technical foul.

Both were examples – good and bad – of an attitude that can change the course of Illinois' season.

"Now that he's got his head cleared and he's starting to understand the game, it's all kind of fitting into place," Weber said. "I just hope it continues."

Fast learners
How Illinois’ Jereme Richmond stacks up against the leading freshmen in key Big Ten statistical categories (through Tuesday’s games):

Jared Sullinger, Ohio St.    17.8
Richmond    8.4

Jared Sullinger, Ohio St.    10.0
Richmond    4.8

Jordan Morgan, Michigan    58.5
Richmond    51.5

Aaron Craft, Ohio State    4.9
Richmond    1.4

Aaron Craft, Ohio State    1.7
Richmond    0.4

Melsahn Basabe, Iowa    1.5
Richmond    0.5

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illini5fan wrote on January 27, 2011 at 7:01 am

It is great to see a player with that intensity and "heart" again. We haven't seen it since Dee graduated. He is the player I want to see on the floor and not on the bench for more than a couple of min(unless we are leading by 40pts). Was frustrating to see him sit so long during the run OSU made in the 2nd half. Go Illini!

PeoriaIllini wrote on January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

Illini5fan, I would agree with you that it is good to see that intensity and "heart" again too. But to say that we havent seen that since Dee Brown left is going too far. I would argue Chester Frazier and Bill Cole both played with intensity and heart, they just show it in different ways.

Also keep in mind the kid is getting over an achilles injury, the staff has to be careful with how they play him.

geriatricillini wrote on January 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

We can only hope that Jim Jackson and Seth Davis read this article to see just how stupid they look. Probably to arrogant to admit they were jumping the "rumor" gun.

Too bad, I used to like JJ, but not now and I have never had any use whatsoever for that Davis guy anyway. This is just one small reason why I listen to our radio guys while I watch our games on tv.

cnichols401 wrote on January 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

Super glad to hear all of that. Jereme will be a monster for at least two more years then off to the NBA!! Go Illini

youlikeroses wrote on January 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Was I the only one trying to make the same face as him while reading about it? Love this kid...he's going to lead us to great things over the next few years.