- Adam Glanzman/Daily
By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 21, 2013
Under first-year head coach John Groce, Illinois got off to its best start in over 100 years when it went 12-0 in non-conference play. The Fighting Illini rose to No. 10 in the polls and were considered to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten.
Now that conference play is wrapping up, though, it’s a bit of a different story. Illinois is currently 6-7 in league play with losses to Purdue and Northwestern, but has had signature wins over Indiana and Minnesota on the road.
Senior guard Brandon Paul leads the team as part of the Illini’s duo of explosive guards. Paul averages 16.4 points per game — fourth best in the conference — and scored 43 points against Ohio State at home last season.
The Daily got a chance to chat with Paul in October at Big Ten Media Day.
The Michigan Daily: Do you feel re-energized by this season? Last season didn’t end well, but there’s a new coach, a new system — is there a new outlook with that as well?
Brandon Paul: Yeah, I think we have a sense of a clean slate, everyone starting new. We have a new coaching staff, they’re looking to do good things this year. We aren’t looking to rebuild — we’re looking to surprise people in the Big Ten this year.
TMD: You and fellow senior D.J. Richardson are experienced guys, you have some guys left over from former coach’s tenure. Do you think your experience will help the players transition under a new head coach?
BP: Sam McLaurin is a five-year guy, a transfer that came in for us, he’s going to help us out. Me, D.J. and Tyler (Griffey) are seniors and our sophomores are all returning at a high level. Aside from that, we lost Meyers (Leonard) to the draft, but we pretty much have everyone returning.
TMD: And as you two are the experienced players of the group, you and D.J. will be looked at as the leaders of the young team. How have you started leading the team?
BP: I think since our freshman year, me and D.J. have took that role upon ourselves (and) we just stuck together. He’s a great kid — he looks to help everybody on the team, and it’s kind of rubbed off on me. I usually like to lead by example, but I’ve become more vocal over the past year. I think a lot of the guys look up to us.
TMD: What is one main emphasis (John Groce has) given you so far this season?
BP: He stopped us one practice and told us to think back when we were in high school — ‘Oh yeah, you thought you were playing hard then, but think about when you got here as a freshman, you played so much harder.’ He lets us know that every day we can play a little bit harder than the day we did before, and I take that into consideration every day at practice.
TMD: You dropped 43 points against Ohio State last year, but do you think anybody in this league could do that again this year, considering the depth of the Big Ten?
BP: I’m not even worried about that, I’m more focused about getting wins. I think obviously it can be done, since I did it once before, but I’m not going to into any games looking to score 43 or 44 points. I let the games come to me, and if it does, I’ll come through in the end.
TMD: Though you and D.J. have been the leading scorers on the team, do you see more of a team focus coming into Big Ten season, like all five players on the floor having to step up to beat the better teams, like Indiana or Michigan?
BP: All these teams are so good, they’re getting better every year. As a team, if we’re going to lose to somebody, they have to beat us, we can’t beat ourselves. That’s one of Coach Groce’s philosophies as well, ‘Don’t beat ourselves, make a team play harder than us.’ That’s going to be hard to do, sometimes.
TMD: Groce has some experience in beating good teams during his tenure at Ohio, the most recent being a win over Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. Do you think that experience and the momentum will help your team this season?
BP: Obviously he’s had an impressive career. He took his team (to the NCAA Tournament) the past couple years, so it can be done. At the end of the season, I don’t want to be worrying about if we’re going to get in or not. I want to be in the tournament and competing for a title. First thing’s first, I want to get a Big Ten ring — that’s one thing I’m focused on and is my attention on this year.