New month, new life for Illini

JOHN SUPINIE

Illinois would like to make it a December to remember.

By rallying at then No. 18 Clemson last week, surviving against Boise State in a listless performance and roaring past Vanderbilt 79-68 Tuesday, Illinois regained some momentum heading toward a key stretch.

After the Illini (7-2) host Western Michigan Sunday (1:30 p.m., BTN), they play neutral site games against rebuilding Georgia in Atlanta and border rival Missouri. Then comes a date against Northwestern before meeting Gonzaga at the United Center on Jan. 2.

“We still have tough games ahead of us,’’ coach Bruce Weber said. “We can’t have any more bad losses. That’s the biggest thing. This next stretch in December and early into the new year is going to be huge for us to really make a statement that we’re a good ballclub.’’

Illinois will be strong favorites against Western Michigan and Georgia, something the Illini didn’t handle well in losses to Utah and Bradley in Las Vegas. Illinois carries a nine-game winning streak against Missouri. Northwestern is one of the surprises of the Big Ten, and Gonzaga faces a reloading season.

“One of the keys is to play well on Sunday,’’ Weber said. “We’ll see how far we’ve come and matured.’’

Illinois’ recent success can be traced in part to the two latest members of the Peoria Pipeline: freshman guard D.J. Richardson and junior forward Bill Cole.

Richardson, the former Peoria Central star, ranked second in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 53.1 percent, just behind Ohio State’s Jeremie Simmons at 53.6. Not known for his shooting in high school, Richardson is 17-for-32 from 3.

He was 7-for-11 from the field and 2-for-4 from the 3-point line while scoring 16 points against Vanderbilt. Richardson is averaging 11.2 points a game as all five Illini starters are scoring in double figures.

“He’s shot the ball way better than I anticipated,’’ Weber said. “He’s really had great form. He locks that elbow. He’s very consistent. That’s a key to a good shooter and to have that consistent release. Right now, he’s shooting with confidence.

“(Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings) said, ‘I know the freshmen drive you nuts. When a kid shoots 58-60 percent from 3, you better shut up and let him play.’ ‘’

Richardson credited some of his improvement to preseason work and extra time after practice with guard Demetri McCamey.

“It’s just confidence,’’ he said. “We’re always shooting in practice. It’s all confidence.’’

Cole earned the unofficial title of captain last week, Weber said, by playing with a style that earns hustle points and doing the little things. Cole’s development forced guard Alex Legion out of the eight-man rotation.

“He’s accepted his role and taken a lot of pride in it,’’ Weber said. “I still want him to make some shots. He wants to do that. He’s helping on defense. He dives on the floor every game. He’s doing all the little things to help us. He had to find a niche.

“If a couple other guys would take that pride in their role, we’d be even more successful.’’

A first-team all-stater during his senior year at Peoria Richwoods one year after playing in the state title game, Cole said earning the unofficial title “was definitely a cool thing. I told a couple people that I’m proud of it.’’

He’s already talking like a captain.

“This team has the talent to do what we want to do,’’ Cole said. “It’s the play hard factor. If we change our mindset where we come to practice and get better every day and compete against anyone, no matter what name they have on their jerseys, the sky’s the limit for this team.’’

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.