Illinois seniors optimistic about making the NCAA tournament

Illinois senior shooting guard D.J. Richardson wears a wristband with the numbers 3-19-13 printed on it.

The numbers stand for March 19, 2013, the first day of the 2013 NCAA tournament, and that’s what drives him on a daily basis.

“I really believe that,” Richardson said recently at the Big Ten basketball media day. “If I didn’t, I’d turn it inside out or take it off. I really think we could be a NCAA team.”

Richardson and fellow senior guard Brandon Paul hold the same belief. While they realize few people share their NCAA tournament confidence as the Illini’s offseason included a changeover at coach and losing center Meyers Leonard to the NBA, the two seniors are out to finish their college careers by going to the dance one more time.

So far, their careers haven’t been what they expected them to be. They’ve been to one NCAA tournament, one NIT, have a 58-44 overall record and have gone 25-29 in the Big Ten in three seasons.

“There’s a lot of regrets,” Richardson said. “Everyone wants to do better, but at the same time, it’s with us being experienced seniors. I believe we can have a great season this year. When I look back, more than everything bad you can think of happened to us the last three years. There’s some positive things that happened, but there’s a lot of bad things. We didn’t close out games we should have won. With us being seniors, upperclassmen now, there should be no reason why we can’t close out tough games.”

Paul is driven by the same failures. Last season was especially tough on the returning Illini. Illinois opened the season with a 15-3 record and was ranked No. 25 before dropping 12 of its final 14 games.

“I want to have a better year this year than I have collectively the last three years,” said Paul, who averaged a team-best 14.7 points last year. “I had a chance to make it to the tournament and win a game my sophomore year. I want to do more than that this year.

“Just being an underdog is always something that plays a part in how hard you play. I think people are pretty much counting us out. I like that. If there’s a chance to play with a chip on our shoulder, that’s how we should play every time we step on the court.”

Richardson sees the key to the season being his and Paul’s consistency. If they’re both rolling, Richardson doesn’t believe they’ll fall short of their goal.

“We got to stay consistent,” Richardson said. “We can’t have games where we don’t come ready to play. Every game we’re the underdog. I feel like we should go into every game like we’re the underdog. We can’t take any team for granted. On Selection Sunday, little games may mean more than the bigger games. Just looking back at our careers, I don’t think there’s been a time where we’ve both had good games and we lost. I think if we’re playing good every game, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

When new Illinois coach John Groce was asked about his expectations, he wouldn’t make any predictions.

“I made that mistake my first year (at Ohio,)” Groce said. “I got caught up in wins, losses, all that stuff. The last three years I was at Ohio we never really talked about we’re going to win this many games, we’re going to do this, do that.

“What we talked about is we’re going to play with some toughness. We’re going to play together. We’re going to execute. We’re going to affect the other team on the defensive end. We’re going to be disruptive. We want to take care of the ball. Here’s our goals in those categories. We got to worry about getting a little better every day. If we do those things, we’re going to have a chance to do some of the things the guys set out as goals for each of those individual teams, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Groce specifically remembered when as an Ohio State assistant in 2005 the media totally missed on where the Buckeyes would end up.

“I think getting into predictions, I think of the 05-06 team we had Ohio State,” Groce said. “I want to say that team on this very day in 05-06 was picked ninth or 10th and won the league. I don’t get caught up in all that. I’m more concerned in the process, doing things the right way and getting caught in the journey.”