CHAMPAIGN — It’s still a few days before Illinois basketball practice opens Friday, but freshman forward Jereme Richmond already has earned Big Man On Campus status.

CHAMPAIGN — It’s still a few days before Illinois basketball practice opens Friday, but freshman forward Jereme Richmond already has earned Big Man On Campus status.

“Certain guys look up to him,’’ senior forward Mike Davis said. ‘Some of the sophomores look up to him. That’s how big of a guy he’s been on campus and this team. He just wants to win.’’

Heralded as the first big-time recruit to commit to coach Bruce Weber roughly four years ago, Richmond is the biggest addition to a team that went 21-15 overall last season — including 10-8 in the Big Ten — and was snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. But the Illini return all five starters and have added a touted three-man freshman class. Now it’s left to Weber to blend this together into a season as big as the preseason expectations.

The first question is: Who starts? The common thinking is insert Richmond into the spot held by senior forward Bill Cole last season. In the meantime, Richmond is saying the right things — and doing the right things. The Illinois season opener is Nov. 8 vs. UC-Irvine.

“It’s important for me to be a key factor in our success,’’ Richmond said. “Starting or not starting, that’s not my focus. I’m focused on competing against my guy in practice. That’s Bill Cole. Making him better and making me better. If everyone is successful, I’m happy with that.’’

Poised during the team’s media day Tuesday at the Ubben Basketball Complex, Richmond looked like anything but a typical freshman. He was smooth with his answers, confident in his game and talking from his experience of being in the spotlight.

All-Everything

The reigning Mr. Basketball in Illinois and first McDonald’s All-American to play at Illinois since Dee Brown, Richmond is a 6-foot-7, 205-pounder who can play four positions. That’s everything but center. He averaged 21 points, 11.5 rebounds, three assists and three blocks last season for Waukegan, and Richmond is a game-changer with his size, athleticism, versatility and intelligent game.

But, Weber will make everyone work for what they get.

“It’s too far out in the future to make a decision if he starts or not,’’ Weber said. “We have to wait and see how early practice and the exhibitions go. He has a great feel for the game. It’s amazing. He picks things up very easily. His versatility is his biggest strength.’’

That’s also the toughest thing to determine. Weber must decide where he begins with Richmond.

“Can he learn everything?’’ Weber said. “That’s a lot of pressure on a young man. Where should we start (grooming) him. Play the one, two, three, four or focus on a couple things at a time, then as he develops, let him do other things. We have to get a feel as we go.’’

His teammates mentioned Richmond  as a backup point guard who can take pressure and some of the workload off point guard Demetri McCamey. Richmond will contribute in more ways than just scoring. His passing already has made him friends up and down the roster.

Cole became the unsung starter who reinvented his game into a hustler, defender and grunt worker last winter. The Peoria Richwoods graduate won the Matto Award that goes to the leader on the hustle chart, but he can see what Richmond brings to the program.

“He’s part of the reason why everyone is so excited,’’ Cole said. “He makes everyone better. I look forward to the competition. I’m not going to just give him my spot. He’s going to have to take it if he wants it.

“He can play any number of positions. Everyone’s got to be on the lookout for their spot. Coach made it known nothing will be given to anybody. The first two weeks of practice is big for somebody wanting a (starting) spot.’’

Richmond’s versatility allowed Weber a better chance to hold players accountable. With more depth comes more competition for minutes, even though Weber is known to struggle in building confidence in his bench.

“We have competition that will start in practice,’’ he said. “I’m not sure last year that some of the guys felt threatened on a daily basis in practice. A little bit of an edge, a little bit of motivation will be a positive. How deep we’ll go . . . if they play well, they’ll play. If that means eight, nine, 10 guys give us something, we’ll try to get them in there in different ways.’’

Richmond has little experience sitting the bench, although it happened while he played on the U.S. gold medal team at the under-18 Americas tournament, a prelude to next year’s under-19 world championships.

“It was interesting,’’ Richmond said. “I’d never come off the bench. It gave me time to watch the game from a different perspective, see where I could make my mark besides scoring the ball, playing great defense or supporting my teammates. It gave me a different outlook. I enjoyed my experience.’’

He’s not the usual freshman.

NOTE: The list of players planning to attend Illini Madness Friday kept growing.
Springfield Lanphier freshman guard Larry Austin Jr.,  fresh from a strong performance at the USA Basketball development camp last weekend in Colorado Springs, is set to attend. So is Chatham Glenwood freshman guard Peyton Allen. Peoria Richwoods sophomore forward Preston Wells is expected to attend the event at Huff Hall.
Otherwise, the list is highlighted by Rock Island senior guard Chasson Randle, who will make soon pick between Illinois, Stanford and Purdue. Illini commits Nnanna Egwu of Chicago St. Ignatius, Tracy Abrams of Chicago Mount Carmel and Mycheal Henry of Chicago Orr will be there.

John Supinie can be reached at 377-1977.