By Roy & Harv Schmidt
Don't get us wrong--every single player that University of Illinois head coach Bruce Weber has recruited in both the classes of 2009 and 2010 will be a vital piece to the puzzle when it comes to Illini basketball two or three years from now. However, we are thoroughly convinced that no player will be more influential in determining the Illini's future success than Jereme Richmond. We will even go as far as to say that it begins and ends with him. Anyone who saw Richmond play at the Waukegan Thanksgiving Tournament this past week should know exactly what we mean.
We took in Richmond's performance vs. Warren this past Saturday night at Waukegan and what immediately jumped out at us is how the 6'7 class of 2010 forward looks like a totally rejuvenated player in comparison with a year ago. More on this in a moment, but first let's talk about Richmond's skill set.
As we have said repeatedly, not only is Richmond the #1 player in Illinois from the class of 2010, but he is also the most naturally talented player in the state--period. While all of the Illini recruits from the 2009 and 2010 classes are talented, if we had to pick the one who is most likely to become a college All-American it would be Richmond hands down. None of the other recruits possess Richmond's degree of versatility. He is capable of scoring both with his back to the basket and facing up. In addition, Richmond rebounds extremely well, can handle the ball and has greatly improved his jumpshot, as he has proven to us that he can be just as dangerous (if not more so) on the wing as he is in the paint.
We could go on and on raving about Richmond's game, but everything we just said you already know. The biggest reason why Richmond is off to an even better start this season as opposed to last year can be summed up quite simply--it is his newfound mental approach. And as far as we are concerned, this above everything else is why he means so much to the future of Illini basketball.
To begin with, Richmond is no longer at odds with Waukegan head coach Ron Ashlaw. Last season the tension between the two became so great that it led to Richmond being dismissed from the Waukegan team just prior to the start of the state tournament. That was last year. At the Waukegan Thanksgiving Tournament, Richmond looked like a player who is ready and willing to accept his role as team leader and as a result his past attitude problems appear to be a thing of the past.
Not only has Richmond mended his relationship with his coach, but he is also getting along much better with his teammates and it shows in terms of his play on the court. Whereas Richmond would have forced shots and complained when he didn't get the ball last season, he now appears to be playing much more unselfishly--getting his teammates involved and simply letting the game come to him.
Perhaps a big factor with respect to this is that Richmond has come to learn that there is plenty of other talent on the Waukegan roster besides himself. 6'3 guard Colin Nickerson improved so much over the summer that his play earned him a D1 scholarship to Fairfield. In addition, 5'7 Mike Springs is an unheralded point guard, 6'2 class of 2010 wing Steve Connor is a blue collar/jack of all trades player and 6'4 class of 2012 forward Ahkeem Springs looks to be one of the most promising freshman prospects in Illinois. As a result, Richmond's level of confidence in his teammates has risen tremendously, as he now knows that he doesn't necessarily have to carry the team on his back.
There is no question that Richmond's positive attitude adjustment has to cause Bruce Weber to breathe a huge sigh of relief in more ways than one. After all, it wasn't that long ago that rumors were running rampant that Richmond was going to transfer prior to the start of this season. Had he done so, it would have been Richmond's third high school in three years, and as we said before, that raises a red flag for any college coach. We think it is now pretty obvious that Richmond's family made the right decision by having him stay at Waukegan.
Furthermore, there is still a segment of the Illini Nation that will remain forever haunted by the day that Eric Gordon officially decommitted from Illinois and instead ended up signing with Indiana. It is therefore no wonder that a certain degree of paranoia still exists amongst this group when it comes to how solid they believe Richmond's commitment is. While there previously may have been cause for concern due to programs such as Kentucky still sniffing around, we have every reason to believe that this is now a thing of the past.
This is where the intangible element comes into play with respect to how much Richmond means to the future of the Illini basketball program. Simply put, outside of the coaching staff Richmond has been one of the biggest ambassadors for Illini basketball that there is. Anyone who is close to Richmond will tell you the exact same thing. In fact, no one else from either the 2009 or 2010 recruiting classes has been more vocal when it comes to trying to get other potential recruits to visit Champaign than Richmond. That certainly doesn't sound like anyone who is having second thoughts with regard to his commitment and could prove to have just as much influence on the Illini's future success as anything that Richmond does on the court.
This past Saturday night versus Warren in a game which included another Illini recruit in 6'3 class of 2009 guard Brandon Paul, Richmond was clearly the best player on the floor, as his 23 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists attest to. As long as Richmond doesn't revert to his previous patterns of behavior, we think that this will also hold true for many games in which he plays for the University of Illinois.