CHAMPAIGN – Brandon Paul started the 2012-13 campaign like a man possessed. He quickly grabbed the team lead in scoring, rebounds and assists; he scored 35 points to help the Illini upset Gonzaga; he fought off a pesky bloody nose to score 19 points in Illinois’ upset of Ohio State.
Since that Ohio State game on Jan. 5, however, Paul has looked a shell of his former self. Where he once seemed a lock to be an All-American, the senior guard now appears overmatched and outsmarted by opposing defense. In the seven games since Illinois beat Ohio State, he has shot better than 50 percent just once, grabbed no more than four rebounds in any game, and dished out just 11 assists.
His struggles, though, are emblematic of the problems plaguing the entire Illinois team. And, despite the string of less-than-great performances, Paul has remained the Illini’s best scorer, rebounder and provider.
With options running thin, coach John Groce took the opportunity on Sunday to send a message to the team: not even the best player on the team is untouchable. Groce started Paul on the bench against Wisconsin, hoping to light a fire under his beleaguered team.
“On Thursday [against Michigan State], I thought Brandon was really good offensively…it’s more about the defensive side right now. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “We had to make a statement.”
But the statement failed to payoff for the first-year head coach. Illinois struggled to a 74-68 loss and the team shot a paltry 15 percent from behind the arc. Paul, coming off the bench, was 3-for-13, scoring 13 points. His replacement, Joseph Bertrand, had a better game, shooting 8-of-12 for 17 points, but failed to have the galvanizing impact Paul has had so far this season.
Bertrand put on a bold face for reporters after the game, saying that who starts makes little difference. But the fact that the Illini did not resemble the team that started the season 12-0 hung over his answers. Nnanna Egwu, a sophomore center, deflected some of the questions about Paul’s absence in the starting lineup by throwing the onus for success on the Illini as a whole.
“Coach Groce puts the guys out there that he thinks will help the team win. We have a responsibility to win as a team,” he said.
Sunday’s game was something of a respite for Illinois, as it was their only game in a stretch of five (going back to the Jan. 27 loss to Michigan) not against a ranked opponent. No Illinois coach or player would speak to the importance of the game, but the Illini seem to be running out of ways to explain their struggles.
“What [the players] were told on Oct. 12 [the first day of practice] is the same thing as in January and February…we have to quit talking about it and start doing it,” Groce said.
When asked after the game where Paul was at mentally, Groce deferred, telling reporters to talk directly to the senior. He responded similarly when asked how Paul felt about being benched.
Though the questions to Groce about Paul went unanswered, it was obvious from his body language and facial expression how the Illinois coach felt about his star and his team’s play: disappointed. With back-to-back games against Indiana and Minnesota looming in the next week, Groce may not choose to alter the lineup further, but he refused to rule out that possibility as he searches for some way to get better play from the Illini.
“At this point, the one thing I do know is if we keep giving up [high percentages] in the second half…we’re going to be in trouble,” he said. “We’ll look at the tape and see how they grade out after this one.”