Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
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The UNLV basketball team received a No. 8 seed Sunday for the NCAA Tournament and will play Illinois at 6:20 p.m. Friday in Tulsa. The winner will likely play top-seeded Kansas. UNLV has been in Kansas' pod in its last three tournament appearances. Additionally, Rebels' coach Lon Kruger is a former coach at Illinois, leading them to three appearances in the NCAA second round before leaving in 2000 to coach the NBA Atlanta Hawks. His successor? Current Kansas coach Bill Self. Ray Brewer, Ryan Greene and Case Keefer discuss the coaching storyline, the rest of the intriguing angles and offer opinions elsewhere within the field of 68.
- Dancing with old friends: UNLV’s NCAA draw includes Illinois, storylines galore
- Breaking down the rest of UNLV’s pod in Tulsa
- Las Vegas sports books reluctantly crown Ohio State as NCAA Tournament favorite
- Illinois faces UNLV in tournament after frustrating season full of close calls
- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
D.J. Richardson always was and still is a Central Illinois kid at heart.
Born and raised in one-time hoops hotbed Peoria, the 6-foot-3 guard now plays his college ball 90 miles southeast of his hometown at Illinois in rural Champaign.
But he credits the year he spent in the Henderson foothills during the 2008-09 season — his last as a prep player — with helping him adjust to life on campus immediately.
"When you go to Vegas and you stay there for a whole year, you learn a lot from it," Richardson said of his time at Findlay Prep. "I learned how to get along with kids of a different race. It also gave me a chance to live in a bigger city, experience different things."
Richardson transferred from Peoria Central High to Findlay Prep when the Pilots were entering their second season of existence. He was a valuable cog in a machine of a team that went 33-0 and captured the front end of back-to-back ESPN Rise National High School Invitational titles.
But the lessons he learned extended outside of the gym.
Richardson was off on his own for the first time, living in a house near the Henderson International School campus with his teammates, sharing several different responsibilities.
On the court, coach Mike Peck ran structured, advanced practices that made games against both local and national competition look easy at times to Richardson and the talented cast around him, which included current Boston Celtics rookie Avery Bradley.
Off the court, he was out of his comfort zone. Richardson was a fresh, unknown face on the campus of a prestigious private school that featured kids from several different ethnic backgrounds.
It was basically college before college.
"When I got here (to Champaign), I was already the type of person who could meet and greet," he said. "I got to college, it was already laid out. Findlay Prep helped me roll out the red carpet when I got to Illinois. When I got here in the summertime, all of the students were here and it was easy for me to introduce myself."
Richardson had no problem introducing himself to Big Ten competition on the hardwood, either.
He averaged 10.5 points per game for a 21-15 team that took some time to mesh while blending in talented new pieces, establishing himself as one of the league's top young 3-point gunners. Along the way, he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and helped the Illini to the NIT quarterfinals.
As a sophomore, he contributed in building a 19-13 record up to this point and earning a No. 9 seed in the Southwest region of the NCAA tournament. They'll face No. 8 UNLV at 6:20 p.m. in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday night with a shot to likely meet No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday.
Soon after the draw was announced Sunday evening, Richardson had a text message from UNLV redshirt freshman center and former Findlay teammate Carlos Lopez.
"Literally 30 seconds after we found out," he said with a laugh.
Richardson crossed paths with several current Rebels during his quick stint in the desert. Though he said he only attended a couple of UNLV games at the Thomas & Mack Center with his Findlay teammates, he played pick-up ball during the summer before his senior season plenty of times with the likes of Lopez, Brice Massamba, Tre'Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall.
While UNLV enters Friday's clash playing some of its best basketball of the season over the past few weeks, Illinois is still struggling to find its footing in 2011.
The Illini, after a blistering 10-1 start to the season, went 9-12 over their last 21 games, haven't won back-to-back games since the first week of January and were bounced in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament by Michigan last Friday, 60-55, in Indianapolis.
Illinois closed the first half of that game on a 17-4 run and led by 11 at the intermission, but in the end failed to advance to the tournament semifinals for only the second time in the last 14 years.
The outcome was symbolic of what's been a trying season for Illini fans, who have seen Bruce Weber's über-talented roster fail to consistently live up to expectations and instead simply show flashes.
"We weren't making big plays at the end of games," Richardson said. "Not closing out games, letting teams come back to win, kind of like the other day."
It's been that kind of year individually for Richardson, too.
In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Richardson averaged 11.6 points per game off 44.6 percent shooting and impressive 43.5 percent accuracy from 3-point range. He was showing signs of building off a strong freshman campaign.
Since then, though, he's averaged just 5.8 points per outing and shot at only a 31.3 percent clip from deep. He's even been out of the starting lineup twice late in the season.
Yet, against some old acquaintances, Richardson is hoping to somehow pull out one of those vintage performances Friday night.
"I started off the season pretty well, going after it and staying consistent game by game, then got into the Big Ten (play) and hit a huge slump," he said. "I'll try to keep shooting and doing other things to help the team win."