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Time to unleash Jereme Richmond

CHAMPAIGN – Jereme Richmond arrived to Illinois with higher expectations than any prospect of the Bruce Weber-era. Against 17th-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday, the 6-foot-7 freshman showed why.

The McDonald’s All-American showed he already is the second most complete player on the Illini – behind senior and future NBA point guard Demetri McCamey – by leaping for key rebounds and attacking the rim against a springy Michigan State and by making the highlight pass or simply the extra pass in a 71-62 win at the Assembly Hall.

“I thought he was great,” Weber said. “I’m happy for him. I think a little bit of the monkey off the back.”

Richmond’s filled box score of 14 points (on 6 of 8 shooting), five rebounds and three assists put an end to a rough week for the talented freshman. Richmond missed two practices last week to return home to Waukegan to deal with a “personal issue.” He was benched for Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin.

Internet speculation swirled about Richmond’s situation, fueled by Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson’s irresponsible tweet that Richmond would transfer. Just hours after the tweet, Jackson retracted and apologized for the post, which he backed citing “rumors.”

“It wasn’t really much to it,” said Richmond, just a day after he released a statement that he would be an “Illini for life.” “I just had to go home and touch base with my family for a short period of time. My teammates and coaches did a good job of supporting me. I wanted to come back with a better focus and give something to the team.

“For me to help my team win with rebounds and some key buckets off assists, it was just a great feeling all around.”

Richmond’s role was growing at the beginning of Big Ten play, and he even earned starts against Missouri (five points, seven rebounds) and Iowa (12 points, five rebounds). An Achilles injury limited his minutes after the holidays. He totaled 16 points and seven rebounds in a combined 39 minutes against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Penn State.

His growth could’ve been stunted by last week’s circumstances. Weber feared it, so he called in the big guns.

“(Utah Jazz star) Deron Williams talked to him and he said, ‘I know you’re a player, but you can’t be a robot on the court.’ …I think tonight he was a lot more aggressive and he wasn’t a robot,” Weber said.

Richmond stepped onto the court with 12:51 left in the first half to applause from an Illini fanbase eager to see its long-awaited prospect blossom. After glimpses of greatness earlier in the year, the Waukegan prospect proved he’ll be the straw that stirs Illinois once McCamey fulfills his eligibility.

Richmond played so well that Weber should again contemplate starting the freshman (Who knows? If he hadn’t had his personal issues, he may have started Tuesday after Mike Davis’ one-rebound performance against Wisconsin).

Richmond is a match-up nightmare for opponents. Four years of playing power forward in high school developed a low-post repertoire that smaller defenders can’t contain. But he also handles the ball like a point guard and only McCamey is a better passer and initiator of the offense. He has Evan Turner-like versatility.

Most importantly, he’s the Illini’s toughest competitor.

After grabbing a key rebound late in the second half to seal Illinois’ win, the freshman smiled toward the Orange Krush student section as he jogged down the court. After a turnover, he clapped his hands and shook his head before clamping down on his man. He wore a bag of ice on his elbow during the postgame press conference, a sign that he banged bodies with the older, beefier Michigan State post players.

An Illini team that lacks toughness needs his emotion.

And if Illinois really is to bounce back from lackadaisical efforts and make a run at the Big Ten championship, Jereme Richmond will need to be unleashed.

“Hopefully, he’s through his things because we could use him,” Weber said.

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Categories: Illinois basketball
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