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July 30, 2010

Illinois' Richmond learning on, off court

Everyone eventually learns the danger of having too much of a good thing.

For Jereme Richmond, the lesson came in high school and focused on his competitiveness. He has that trait in abundance. Sometimes he has it in overabundance.

The same fiery mentality that helped Richmond, a 6-foot-8 forward from Waukegan (Ill.) High, become a McDonald's All-American and Illinois' "Mr. Basketball" also caused him to argue with his coach and get suspended from his high school team.

"At times, being a young guy, [you start] thinking everything revolves around you from all the hype," said Richmond, the No. 35 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. "It was a very humbling experience and it made me who I am today."

If Richmond keeps his emotions in check, he could help a veteran Illinois team make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois returns all five starters and seven of the top eight scorers from a team that went 21-15 but missed the NCAA tourney last season. The Illini don't have anyone with Richmond's versatility. Few teams do.

"I don't really think we've had anybody like him, to be honest," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "He can do so many things, especially as a forward."

Or as a guard.

Richmond's natural position is small forward, but he has the ability to play anywhere but center. He showed off his versatility this summer while playing four positions on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship in San Antonio.

"He's just unbelievably skilled," said Ron Ashlaw, who coached Richmond in high school. "At the high school level, even though he was a perimeter player, he was a dominant post player for us. He has tremendous footwork around the basket, the ability to play with either hand, make the appropriate move and counter-move. It's the same thing on the perimeter.

"He's a really skilled basketball player with great instincts."

If he can add some strength to his 195-pound frame, Richmond could be the difference-maker for Illinois. Mike Tisdale gives Illinois a legitimate 7-footer and forward Mike Davis led the Big Ten in rebounding last season. Senior point guard Demetri McCamey is an All-America candidate and heads a backcourt that also features promising sophomores Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.

Richmond gives the Illini a new element. He's only one inch shorter than the 6-9 Davis, yet he also has a full array of perimeter skills. His competitiveness also should provide an energy boost to a team that fell out of NCAA tournament contention last season by losing five of its last six regular-season games.

"I want to come in and make a statement," Richmond said. "I've been hyped as one of the players who can be the future of the program. I want to prove myself worthy."

Richmond's well-rounded game is evident from the way he stuffed the stat sheet as a prep senior. He averaged 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.5 blocks to win the "Mr. Basketball" voting.

He earned an early scholarship offer from Illinois and committed to the Illini in the fall of his freshman year in high school.

His early commitment to the state's flagship program and his status as one of the state's top prep players put Richmond in the spotlight early. Richmond admits he didn't always handle that attention in the best manner.

He got into a heated dispute with Ashlaw that resulted in his brief exit from Waukegan's team during his sophomore season. He also served a one-game suspension as a senior, reportedly for failing to cooperate with school officials who were breaking up a fight outside campus.

"Sometimes I like to channel my competitive nature in a vocal way," Richmond said. "I have to learn to channel it in a little different way."

He's not the only person to notice that.

"For Jereme, I think the main challenge for him has been to have a focused competitiveness," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "When he does that, he can be very good because he's a very versatile player. He can do a lot of different things. At times, watching him play, he'll get distracted by other elements and not be fully engaged in the game."

Richmond has shown signs of correcting that problem. He made up with Ashlaw, who now gives his star player rave reviews. Once they realized they had the same goals in mind and shared a competitive spirit, Richmond and Ashlaw developed an understanding.

Ashlaw learned to appreciate Richmond's zeal to succeed at anything. If Richmond was involved in a scrimmage at practice, his team had to win. If the team was running sprints at the end of practice, Richmond had to finish first. That unyielding drive should help Richmond on the next level, as long as his emotions don't get the best of him.

"He's 18 years old -- a young 18," Ashlaw said. "We could all think back to where we were when we were 18 and the choices and decisions we made. Here's a kid with the weight of the world on his shoulders, everybody eyeballing what he does. When he does something, it makes the newspaper.

"Like any kid, he's still going through the growth and maturation process, but in my estimation he's well on his way to figuring out what he needs to do to be successful."

The word "competitive" often comes up when people talk about Richmond. Weber believes his prize recruit merits another adjective -- loyal.

Going in with gold
The two leading scorers on the U.S. team at the FIBA U18 World Championships were uncommitted 2011 prospects Austin Rivers and Quincy Miller. But there also were plenty of college players who helped the U.S. under-18 team win a gold medal this summer. Here's a look at the active college players who were part of that team; all but Abdul Gaddy -- a sophomore -- is an incoming freshman.
NameHeightPos.College
Vander Blue6-3GMarquette
Abdul Gaddy6-3GWashington
Josh Hairston6-8FDuke
Kyrie Irving6-2GDuke
Tony Mitchell6-7FMissouri
Jereme Richmond6-8FIllinois
Patric Young6-9F/CFlorida
At a time when Illinois was struggling to attract homegrown players such as Derrick Rose and Sherron Collins, Richmond committed to the Illini as a freshman and never wavered.

"When he did commit, it gave us an opportunity to constantly monitor him academically and stay in touch with him," Weber said. "He helped us with the recruitment of other kids. He's been very loyal to us.

"He had opportunities: 'Why do you look at Illinois? Why don't you try this?' He always communicated with us and stayed very loyal to us."

Illinois looks to be getting him at an ideal time. Richmond's performance this summer suggests he has found a way to play top-level basketball while keeping his emotions under control.

Richmond averaged 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists while helping win the gold medal for a U.S. team coached by Jeff Capel. Weber said Capel told him Richmond was one of the top leaders and most mature players on the team.

"He's been playing very well of late," Meyer said. "I think his game's maturing. He did very well with the U.S. 18-and-under team. It looks like things are coming together for him."

A gold medal. The McDonald's All-American Game. Illinois' Mr. Basketball. Yes, it already has been quite a year for Richmond.

If he keeps up his rapid progress, it could be a big year for Illinois as well.

"He brings a lot to the table," Weber said. "We have a veteran squad with four very solid seniors and some good sophomores. Maybe he can be the versatile guy, the missing link that makes the difference for us really making a strong run this upcoming season."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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