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Illini men’s basketball seniors strive for consistency under new coach

FILE - In this Oct. 22 2012 file phoIllinois head coach John Groce talks with guard D.J. Richardsduring Illini's

FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2012 file photo Illinois head coach John Groce talks with guard D.J. Richardson during the Illini's annual Orange and Blue scrimmage basketball game in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann, File) MANDATORY CREDIT

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:33AM

How fitting that Illinois opens its season against Colgate tonight (7 p.m.,

The Illini are eager to brush away their unsavory finish last spring, a 2-12 swoon that greased the way for John Groce to replace Bruce Weber.

“Last year left a bitter taste in our mouths,’’ senior Brandon Paul said. “We don’t want to go back to that. Everyone’s a lot more motivated this year.’’

In the best-case scenario, the Illini will turn that bad taste in their mouths into a chip on their shoulders.

If Illinois is going to overachieve and give itself a chance for a palatable season, Paul and fellow senior guard D.J. Richardson will need to be leading that charge.

The players voted sophomore Tracy Abrams and senior transfer Sam McLaurin captains along with Paul and Richardson. But the weight is on Paul and Richardson. As Illinois’ best and most experienced players, this is going to be their team — one way or another.

For Paul, the key will be consistency. His 43-point outburst against Ohio State, the most points by a Big Ten player since 1994, set the bar high. A two-point game at Nebraska and a four-point outing against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament were another matter.

“It’s a delicate balance,’’ Groce said of Paul’s shot selection. “Brandon is a terrific scorer. The last thing I want to do is put shackles on him. So I’ll swallow one [bad shot] once in a while. I want him to be aggressive. I want him to attack. Brandon wants to be good. He loves the game. That gives him a chance to do special things.’’

For Richardson, an excellent defender who has been a three-point shooter, the challenge is to put the ball on the floor more and be more mobile. Toward that end, the senior from Peoria dedicated his offseason to improving his ball-handling.

Paul, from north suburban Warren, and Richardson know their fortunes are intertwined with Illinois’ prospects in Groce’s first season. They also know this is their last chance to make some collegiate noise.

That’s especially wrenching for Richardson, whose shooting percentage and assists have gone down each year since he was the Big Ten coaches’ freshman of the year.

“I don’t think I really developed like I should have or needed to,’’ Richardson said. “I kind of went down, took some steps backward. I was young and I was getting frustrated. We were losing. I hate losing. It was hard for me to get through those tough times.’’

And now? Richardson is intent on fighting through whatever obstacles come his way. He doesn’t want to look back and wonder.

“This is my last year,’’ he said. “There’s no reason for me to get frustrated. Just let it all out on the court and give it my all.’’

That may be easier said than done. Preferring to stick to basketball, Groce hasn’t felt it necessary to overthink psychological damage.

“I try not to get caught up in the past. I wasn’t here; that’s unfair,’’ said the new coach, hopeful but curious about his team’s toughness. “We haven’t been popped in the mouth yet. That’ll happen. Every team gets popped in the mouth. Then we’re going to see where our attitudes really lie.’’

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