CHAMPAIGN — By all accounts, Cliff Jr. is the smartest of Cliff Sr. and Lynda Paul’s three sons.
He scored a 31 on his ACT and attended the University of Illinois on a merit scholarship as an accounting major after graduating from Warren High School in Gurnee in 2006.
A rebounding machine, he had a scholarship offer to play basketball at IUPUI but decided against it.
“I was only like 6-1, 6-2 at the time,” Cliff Jr. said. “There isn’t much of a future for a 6-1 power forward. I figured I wasn’t going to do much with the basketball thing.”
His little brothers, on the other hand, dedicated themselves to the game. Brandon Paul is in his fourth season as a starter and will lead No. 13 Illinois into Spokane, Wash., (9 p.m., ESPN2) for a matchup against 10th-ranked Gonzaga. Darius is a blossoming 6-foot-8 freshman forward, starting at Western Michigan.
“Cliff Jr., in his own right, is a great basketball player; he just doesn’t have the commitment to practice four hours a day,” said his mother, Lynda.
What Cliff Jr., who now stands 6-4 and weighs an imposing 250 pounds, is committed to now is finishing his degree at Illinois while figuring out what he wants to do for a career. The 23-year-old got bored with accounting after a while. He’s majoring in communications and is on schedule to walk across the stage with Brandon in the spring. He thinks he might want to do some broadcasting, but he’s also taken an interest in politics.
“For some men, the maturity takes a little longer,” Lynda said. “He’s a good kid; we’ve had no trouble with him. He works full time (at a Champaign hotel) and he’s a full-time student, so he has a full plate.”
When he’s not busy, Cliff Jr. is next to his parents at the Assembly Hall passionately cheering on Brandon and the Illini.
It’s a strange situation, big brother sitting by idly as his little brothers develop into superstars.
But Cliff’s style isn’t to be jealous. If Mom is Brandon’s and Darius’ No. 1 fan, then big brother is 1A.
“It’s been exciting down here just to watch people see (Brandon) succeed,” Cliff said. “He’s worked pretty hard for it.”
Besides, when Cliff watches Brandon — who leads the Illini in scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (3.9) — he can take satisfaction in knowing his little brother has never beaten him in a game of one-on-one.
There’s a catch to that.
“I haven’t played him since he was a freshman in high school, but he never beat me,” Cliff said of Brandon, Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 2009. “When I came back home after my first year here, I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy is a baller now.’ I knew I couldn’t beat him anymore, so I stopped playing against him. We get together and can be a pretty good two-man team and beat some people.”
The two eldest Paul boys, who are roommates at the UI, recently teamed to accomplish a goal they’ve had for a few years: get Joseph Bertrand to join Twitter.
After Bertrand’s standout performance in Illinois’ win against Georgia Tech last week, the social-networking site was buzzing about the fourth-year junior’s performance, particularly his acrobatic layup that earned him a spot at No. 3 on ESPN’s top plays.
“We told him everyone was wanting to talk about him and connect with him, so he needed a Twitter,” Cliff said.
Bertrand agreed to join the site — if Cliff beat him in a game of chess.
“We cleared the table immediately and set it up,” Brandon said.
The two had played an epic three-hour battle recently, with Cliff coming out on top. Bertrand downloaded an app to his phone and practiced for weeks ahead of the second matchup.
Despite his preparation, Bertrand lost the 90-minute match. He joined Twitter and has more than 3,000 followers.
“I’ve been close to getting him for years, but Cliff sealed the deal,” Brandon said.
When picked on as a kid, Brandon would threaten to send his big brother after the bullies.
“He’s always been a great older brother to me. Ever since we were little, if I ever had a problem with anybody, I knew he was in my corner,” Brandon said.
When criticism of Brandon and the Illini reached a fever pitch last season when the Illini lost 12 of their last 15 games, Cliff shifted into big-brother mode.
“There were a lot of shots taken at a lot of people; it was tough,” Cliff said.
For the most part, though, Cliff hasn’t had confrontations with unruly fans. Most of the heavy criticism comes from anonymous message-board posters and faceless radio- show callers.
“Everybody loves Brandon down here,” he said. “But I’m a critic and a critic of sports, so I understand it when there is criticism.”
As Cliff sits in the stands and watches Brandon put together an eye-opening start to his senior season, what does he see?
“His decision-making is a lot better, and he’s not thinking as much. I think that’s why he’s playing so well,” Cliff said. “When you’re trying to make decisions and you’re thinking about it, that split second is huge.”
First-year Illinois coach John Groce and his staff prefer an up-tempo style of play, which lends itself favorably to the combo guard’s strengths.
“I have a lot more confidence in my game,” Brandon said. “The coaches have a lot of confidence in me, and they allow me to play my game and that’s helped a lot.”
Lynda, a former Ball State player who at one point coached all of her boys in AAU basketball, said Groce’s arrival has been “a godsend” for Brandon’s game.
The player she saw wearing No. 3 in orange the past couple of years was a far cry from the player who entered Illinois with great expectations and an infinite amount of confidence.
“Someone got in his ear and tried to change his game. It’s been difficult,” Mom said. “It was exciting. I’ve been watching Brandon play for a long time. Brandon is nowhere near peaking. He probably won’t peak until he’s 26; his body’s very young. We’ve really just seen the beginning for Brandon.”