By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Three years ago as freshmen, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand and Brandon Paul arrived at the University of Illinois campus to begin their basketball careers, and before they had even stepped on to a court, the trio made a statement with their jersey numbers.
Paul picked #3, Bertrand took #2, and Richardson chose #1.
Today, after combining for 63 points on 19-of-30 shooting in Tuesday night’s rollicking 79-74 triumph over No. 5 Ohio State at a delirious Assembly Hall, the question now is if the Illini’s athletic trio is finally ready for true liftoff.
It’s certainly looking that way after Bertrand blew up for a career-high 25 points last Saturday vs. Nebraska only to see Paul top him on Tuesday with his mind-boggling 43-point explosion vs. the Buckeyes. Recovering from a sprained wrist, Richardson – the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year – appeared to be back in the swing of things vs. OSU, draining three 3-pointers.
The win against Ohio State was just one game, of course.
But for Illinois, with its guards showing some serious swagger and grit for a team searching for its identity, the victory appeared as if it could portend much more. In fact, so impressive was last night’s performance against the Buckeyes that it had me pondering this:
D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand are beginning to look a bit like Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head did back in 2003-04.
Now, before you start hyperventilating and decrying me for writing basketball blasphemy, hold your horses. Note that I didn’t say that this current Illini threesome resembles the Dee, Deron and Luther of 2004-05 who powered the Illini to a 37-2 record and a berth in the national championship game.
Rather, I think that as juniors and a redshirt sophomore, D.J., Brandon and Joseph are perhaps starting to click in the midseason much in the way that Dee, Deron and Luther did as sophomores and a junior – the year they reached the Sweet 16 prior to their legendary Final Four run.
Perhaps you’ll recall that 17 games into that 2003-04 season, Illinois was floundering with a 12-5 record and had lost three of its previous five games, including a 76-56 rout at Wisconsin.
At that time, Dee and Deron still hadn’t fully bought in to new coach Bruce Weber’s system, while Luther was struggling to find his way following a suspension-marred first half of the season.
A week after that embarrassment against the Badgers, however, Illinois regrouped to beat Michigan 67-52 on Jan. 31 and didn’t lose again until the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. In between, the Illini rattled off 12 consecutive wins, fueling a 26-7 season that also laid the groundwork for the Final Four run the next spring.
Now, it remains to be seen how Illinois builds on Tuesday’s big win over Ohio State. But I do think it’s clear that some serious blocks are falling into place for the Illini.
D.J., Brandon and Joseph are not the same kinds of players as Dee, Deron and Luther, mind you. The latter three were all stellar ball-handlers and passers – probably the three best point guards in the Big Ten at the time – whereas D.J., Brandon and Joseph don’t value the ball in the same way. Certainly not yet, at least. But they can score and wreak defensive havoc much like their predecessors.
And, fact is, none of them ever dropped 43 points on a top five team.
If you want an idea of just how good Brandon Paul was last night, consider this: He scored his points on 11-of-15 shooting, which included hitting 8-of-10 from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws, to go along with eight rebounds, four blocks, two assists and a pair of steals.
But that wasn’t all. According to post-game tabulations, Paul also become only the third college basketball player in the last 10 years to record 40 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, and the first in 15 years to score 43 or more points on 15 or fewer field goal attempts.
That’s just scary good.
As a point of comparison, in 2003-04, Deron averaged 14.0 points per game, Dee 13.3 and Luther 11.0. So far this season, Brandon is averaging 13.8, D.J. 13.0 and Joseph 6.8, although the late bloomer is at 14.2 in the last six games and doing it on ridiculous 72.2 percent shooting.
Thanks to those numbers, Bruce Weber of late has taken to calling Joseph Bertrand “Superman,” while after last night’s win, Meyers Leonard offered up a new nickname for Brandon Paul: “Spider-man.”
If those two can keep it up and D.J. Richardson becomes a “Batman” – or even just a “Robin” – then the trio may have a real chance of emulating the feats of some other superheroes from Illini lore.
Namely, Dee, Deron and Luther.
In any case, it should be interesting to see how this comic book plays out. So, stay tuned. Next week, the Illini will be back in action against Penn State. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.