Dec. 15, 2010
By Libby Knight, Illinois Sports Information
When you meet D.J. Richardson off the court, you wouldn't think the humble and soft-spoken sophomore guard would be the hard-nosed, tough defender he is for the 12th-ranked Illini. But when Richardson gets on the basketball court, he is just that, the go-to defensive stopper for one of the top teams in the country, or as he likes to tell it, an animal.
"I kind of compare myself to an animal," Richardson said of his philosophy on defense. "I just try to attack the person I'm guarding. When I get scored on I always get mad, so I take that as a goal to stop the other player each game."
Last season, when there weren't any volunteers in accepting the role as the defensive specialist for Illinois, Richardson took it upon himself to accept the role. Now through 11 games of his sophomore season, he is the definitive go-to defensive stopper for Illinois.
"I just love doing it," Richardson said. "It's fun to shut down the other team's best player."
Which is exactly what Richardson did when Illinois played Gonzaga in the Battle in Seattle on December 4. Richardson held Gonzaga star Steven Gray to 10 points, which was 11 points below his season average.
"It was a big game," Richardson said. "Last year we played against Gonzaga and I really didn't play that well. Guarding Gray was big for the team. I was just trying to show everyone I could stop him and that was going to be our key to winning the game."
Richardson's maturation into the defensive specialist began in high school, when he was a standout guard at Peoria Central High School. Assistant coach Jerrance Howard, also from Peoria, has known Richardson since he was in seventh grade.
"We went to the same high school and come from the same high coaches," Howard said. "A lot of it is that our old coaches use to make us go up against our ex-players like Shaun Livingston and A.J. Guyton. All his life he's been playing against older guys and that has a lot of to do with it, playing that Peoria basketball and having that Peoria mindset."
Teammates have noticed Richardson's effort on the defensive side of the ball as well, which has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
"Every time we have a guard, coach wants to put DJ on him because he knows that he's the best defender we have and one of the best in the country," freshman Jereme Richmond said. "When I see him give his best effort, it definitely inspires me to try my best."
While Richardson is known for his defense, he is also becoming more multifaceted on the offensive side of the ball. Throughout the summer months, the coaching staff challenged Richardson to improve his ball-handling skills and his ability to get to the basket.
"I need to have an overall game and not just shooting threes," Richardson said. "I can mix it up then, and that will help me during my Illinois basketball career and my future career."
Howard has seen a lot of improvement from the sophomore guard this season, including his ability to get to the basket and is aware of how important Richardson's presence on the defensive end is to the success of the team.
"This year, he's been more vocal," Howard said. "He accepts coaching and he does everything we tell him to do. He's really taken on that role of trying to get to the basket more, and he's definitely stepped up his game this year. We can score against anyone in the country and have the talent in the players, but if we're going to win it's going to be because of defense, and he sets the tone on defense."
For Richardson, everything is a little bit bigger and a little bit better the second time around.
"From last year to this year, I'm more mature and I understand my role more," Richardson said. "My goal is to have a better season each year, so having a better season than I did my freshman year is definitely a big goal for me. For the team, just to have a good season, do some damage and making it to the Big Dance is important."
Howard is a firm believer that good things happen to good people, and for D.J. Richardson, good things are happening.
"You know what you're going to get from him every day," Howard said. "He's probably, if not the hardest worker, one of the hardest workers. Coming out of high school, I thought he was going to be special. When you have a guy like that has a lot of pride in the program, good things will happen, and it's showing now because he's been playing at a high level."