During his first three seasons with the Illinois Fighting Illini, Brandon Paul displayed the talent to be a first-round draft pick, yet lacked the ability to consistently dominate on the offensive end of the floor.
When head coach Bruce Weber was axed after last season, John Groce entered the picture.
Behind his run-and-gun offense, Groce led the Ohio Bobcats to two NCAA Tournament appearances in his last three seasons at the helm, molding star point guard DJ Cooper into one of the most decorated players in college basketball history.
Groce brought his “bombs away” mentality to Champaign, which fit perfectly with the skill set of Paul, and the coach-player duo had the Fighting Illini off to one of their best starts in school history. Illinois won 12 consecutive games to start the season, winning the Maui Invitational and taking down then-No. 10 Gonzaga (currently the No. 1 team in the nation). The major catalyst for the hot start was the lights-out shooting of Paul.
Over the first 12 games of his senior year, Paul averaged 18.8 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting from the floor. Against Gonzaga on December 8th, Paul willed his team to a victory, dropping 35 points on the Zags, while shooting 10 for 16 from the field, including 5 of 9 from beyond the arc. The remarkable play of Paul earned him a selection to the Wooden Award midseason watch list, and established the Fighting Illini’s star as one of the premier scorers in the nation.
Unfortunately, Illinois’ monumental win in Spokane would prove to be the apex of their season.
After starting out with 12-straight wins, Groce’s squad has gone 9-10 over the past two months. For Paul and his teammates, the major reason for their recent plight has been three-point shooting, their bread and butter during their 12-game winning streak.
Since entering BIG Ten play, the Fighting Illini have taken 332 three-pointers, connecting on only 29.5 percent of their attempts. Illinois shot 38.5 percent from long-range over its first 12 games of the season, but has gone ice cold recently, and so has its star.
In his first 10 games, Paul shot 40.7 percent from three-point range. However, his inclination to rely on his perimeter game has been his biggest weakness of late. In his last 13 games, Paul has shot only 32.3% from long-range. His recent struggles from 3-point range has caused his efficiency to plummet, and he is currently shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep.
As a result of their strong play during non-conference play, Illinois has remained in good standing for the NCAA Tournament. According to Joe Lunardi of ESPN, the Fighting Illini are currently projected as a No. 9 seed in the Big Dance, and will have a chance to build their resume with a good showing in the BIG Ten Tournament.
With their 12-game winning streak to start the season, Illinois showed that they can beat anybody in the country. If the Fighting Illini get an ideal matchup, and Paul gets going early and often, look for Illinois to do some damage in the tourney. Then again, as the biggest enigma in college basketball, you never really know what will happen when John Groce and his squad step on the court.