Senior gives Illini a fighting chance

CHICAGO -- Illinois coach John Groce doesn't preach patience, so it makes sense Brandon Paul wanted his "one shining moment" a week early.

In the first game of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center, Illinois and Minnesota were tied with overtime looming. Paul got the ball in an isolation against Gophers guard Austin Hollins at the top of the key, crossed him over going left and shot a fadeaway 15-footer for the win. The Illinois bench went nuts. The Illinois fans erupted. Gus Johnson went Gus.

March had officially begun.

"We give him the ball and tell him to make it," Illinois center Nnanna Egwu said. "Brandon's a big-time player and big-time players make big-time plays. Especially in March. This is when we need Brandon right now."

Do they ever. When No. 7 seed Illinois (22-12) plays No. 10 seed Colorado (21-11) In a very fun first-round game Friday in Austin, Texas, it will need Paul to want the ball and to demand the spotlight.

In the 51-49 win over Minnesota, Illinois only shot 32.1 percent and 6-for-25 (24 percent) from 3. But Paul led with 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting.

"We didn't make too many shots as a team today," Paul said after the game. "But we had the mindset of 'Make the next one.'"

Conversely, in the Illini's 80-64 loss to Indiana on Friday, Paul went 2-for-13 from the field. Both makes were in the first half. He got to the line, hitting 11 of 12 free throws, but Illinois needed him to make shots.

The Buffaloes are 28th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency and 6-foot-7 junior forward Andre Roberson is second in the country with 11.3 rebounds a game. Colorado allowed teams to shoot 32.3 percent from 3-point range, 102nd in the country, and 40.4 percent from the field, 62nd in the country.

Coaches get the big contracts for March wins and small-school players become cult legends. But almost every team needs a guy like Paul, a senior scorer to carry the team.

The Illini are senior-heavy, coming off Bruce Weber's disastrous final season. This was supposed to be a transition year as Groce started recruiting his players and building his program.

While center Meyers Leonard declared for the draft, Paul said the adjustment by the rest of the team to Groce was immediate.

"We bought in right away," Paul said. "He said he didn't want this to be a rebuilding year, he wanted to win right away."

It makes sense. Seniors Paul and D.J. Richardson hadn't had the college career they imagined. This was their last shot.

The Illini were perhaps the biggest surprise of the non-conference season, going 12-0 with wins at Gonzaga and against Butler in Hawaii and rising high in the polls. They came down to earth in the rugged Big Ten, but still managed wins against Ohio State and Indiana.

Paul, a Gurnee, Ill. native, isn't a showboat kind of a scorer. He's not Marshall Henderson. He's not D.J. Cooper, the Chicago native who starred for John Groce's previous Sweet 16 at Ohio University.

Paul averages a team-high 16.6 points, and only shoots 40 percent (33 percent on 3-pointers), but he's still the man-- that's why Illinois tells Paul to keep shooting.

It's not just him. Illinois guard Richardson (12.4 ppg, 32.3 percent on 3s), who tied the Minnesota game with a 3, can shoot until the clock strikes zero. Illinois was third in the country with 815 3-point attempts, though it only made 32.5 percent of them, tied for 242nd in Division I.

Hey, you can't make a shot you don't take. And that's how you win the tournament, defend and shoot.

Illinois is ranked 49th in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency in Ken Pomery's stats. (Groce is a big fan of kenpom.com.)

Groce is hyperactive on the sidelines, but he isn't a micro-manager. He has liberated his team.

"I think this time of the year everyone knows what you're running, everyone has scouted you so much," Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford said. "There are no secrets. It's a matter of giving guys confidence, putting them in space and letting them make plays."

During the end of the Minnesota game, Ford and Groce were debating calling a timeout to set up a play when Paul told them to chill out.

"It's huge," Paul said. "Just the fact he had the confidence in me to make that shot. He could've called a timeout and drew up a play. I told him. 'Just let us work.'"

The coaches agreed, telling him to "go get it."

"It made you feel better when he said he wanted it, but he was getting the ball regardless of whether he wanted it in that situation," Ford said. "But when a guy calls for it, as a coach that makes you feel better."

Ford and Groce are used to singular players taking over in March. Their guard-heavy attack at Ohio resulted in three NCAA tournament victories in two trips. At Ohio, Cooper could take a 3 from the half-court line because Groce wanted him to have the confidence when it mattered. That confidence turned into upset victories. But when a streaky shooting team goes south, it can get ugly.

Groce has proved himself a big-game coach. No one is expecting a big run out of this team, but Illinois can advance into the second week of the tournament if guys make shots.

Make shots. Sometimes it's that simple.