CHAMPAIGN – Illinois ran out of the gate to start this season, a hot-shooting surprise that opened 12-0 just months after imploding in a way that made observers wonder whether the Illini might carry the effects for some time.
They were in those opening weeks one of the best shooting teams in the country. Just about everybody, it seemed, could hit a jump shot.
Since then, though, Illinois’ shooting has been a miss as often as it’s been a hit. In their past four games, the Illini have hit just less than a third of their shots, and lost three of four.
The one player capable of carrying the team offensively over that span has been Brandon Paul.
The senior guard from Gurnee has averaged 20 points over those four games. He hit the jumper at the buzzer that delivered the only win, in the Big Ten tournament opener over Minnesota.
Illinois, as first-year coach John Groce said, has several players who could get hot. But Paul is the shooter most likely to make seventh-seeded Illinois (22-12) dangerous when it opens the NCAA tournament Friday in Austin, Texas, against the East Region’s No. 10 seed, Colorado (21-11).
If a team’s shooters can find their touch, “That’s always dangerous this time of year,” Groce said.
In his four seasons at Illinois, Paul has often been the player with that hot hand. He lit up Ohio State for 43 points in January 2012, the third-best game in Illini history.
In his first three seasons at Illinois, Paul has been a charismatic shooter, an entertainer equally capable of a dazzling night or a big miss that ends an important possession just a few seconds in than the leader and consistent producer fans have begged him to be.
He produced a humorous YouTube video about life as a student-athlete that has been viewed almost 90,000 times. His Twitter account is popular among Illini fans, in part for jabs at his Twitter-averse teammate Joseph Bertrand.
But there is a real sense with Paul that this team better get something good done in his one last shot. While sticking when they speak publicly to the one-game-at-a-time mantra, Paul and his teammates have quietly worn wrist bands all season stamped with the date of the NCAA tournament’s first game: 3-19-13.
“We have prepared ourselves for this the whole season,” he said.
His motivation might lie in what happened a season ago.
The win over Ohio State proved to be the high point, just before the nightmare began. The Illini won only twice more while losing a dozen, and Bruce Weber paid with his job.
Paul said he didn’t pay much attention Sunday night as Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats became a No. 4 seed in the West region. Paul was still too busy waiting for Illinois’ name to be called. But he said he talked with his old coach last week.
“He’s done a great job with that program over there,” Paul said. “I’m glad that everything worked out for them.”
As it has for the Illini.
Last season’s long, slow slide brought Groce to town.
And it set up a dynamic between coach and players that quickly cured most concerns. Inheriting a team of jump shooters – Paul, D.J. Richardson, Bertrand and Tyler Griffey, among others – he told them to shoot. And keep shooting, even when they miss.
“Our coaches wouldn’t let us doubt ourselves,” Paul said. “They’ve trusted us the whole time.”
That trust then brought Illinois through another tough stretch this season.
After that hot start, the Illini slumped hard. Their defense softened, that shooting went cold and the Illini opened the Big Ten season 2-7. They fell so far back in the pack that, in a year when the conference is even tougher than normal, many wondered whether another collapse was about to happen.
Instead, Illinois piled up five straight wins, starting with an unthinkable 74-72 upset of then-No. 1 Indiana.
That trust, Groce said, paid off in the turnaround – though this time with players trusting their first-year coaches.
How’d the Illini bounce back?
“Not changing a single thing,” Groce said. “We kept preparing the same way. We didn’t change our offense, we didn’t change our defense.
“I said, ‘You guys are just going to have to trust us.’”
And they did.
When they trailed late against Indiana and the sellout crowd all but assumed it was over, the Illini stuck to the plan and pulled out the win.
Paul had 21 points that night. But he was overshadowed by 23 from Richardson, who went on a late tear that put Illinois in a position to win, and by Griffey, who had 14 points off the bench and delivered the buzzer-beating layup that downed the Hoosiers.
But down the stretch, it has been Paul who has produced as his teammates have struggled to score. Take his shooting out of the team stats the past four games and Illinois has shot well below 30 percent. Heading into Friday’s game, Illinois could certainly use another productive game from Paul if it intends to do more than just get to the NCAAs.
Illinois’ players learned about their NCAA destination behind closed doors Sunday night. Photos distributed by the university show predictable fist pumps and jubilation.
By the time a handful of players, Paul among them, made their way out to talk to reporters about their seed, their opponent and getting back to the NCAAs a year after the worst Illinois season in a long time, they were calm and serious. Paul more than anyone.
“Now that it’s here,” he said with a straight, all-business face, “it’s all about advancing.”
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