Klee: Paul looking to shake things up

CHAMPAIGN — The details of Brandon Paul's most recent meal are etched in his mind like it happened yesterday.

Unfortunately, it didn't.

His last traditional meal was exactly 32 days ago. Trust him; he's counting.

On that fateful day, the Illinois senior built a hoagie, modeled after a sandwich from Quizno's, one of his favorite stops. Thankfully, he took great care in preparing the feast.

"It was around 2 o'clock on a Tuesday," Paul said, a touch of longing in his voice. "I made an Italian-type sandwich: salami, ham, provolone cheese, pepperoni. Then I toasted it in the oven and had some chips and a couple cookies and a Sprite.

"That's the last time I ate a regular meal."

Such is the life of a 21-year-old with a broken jaw. Paul's is still wired shut, the result of a collision in practice that sent him into surgery. The 6-foot-4 guard dropped 15 pounds in the first week of smoothies, juice and chicken broth. Now he's around 191 and expects to return to his playing weight of 198-200 by the fall semester.

"I've always liked to eat," he said. "Now that I can't, I really like to eat."

While his teammates are in summer workouts and playing pickup games, Paul is limited to shooting drills and weightlifting. He will return to contact drills "as soon as possible."

"When I get back it will be like I was out for 40 days. I've never been out that long in my life," Paul said. "It's bittersweet. I like watching the guys get better. And everybody's getting better. You can see it. But at the same time I want to be out there playing right with them."

The Illini certainly have a different look without their most gifted player. As a junior, Paul averaged 17.7 points in Big Ten games — third best in the league — but he'll need to become a more cerebral and complete leader if the Illini exceed expectations next season.

"Brandon is a very talented player. That's obvious right away when you see him," coach John Groce said. "What we want from Brandon is (for him) to raise the level of play from those around him. A lot of people call that, 'Making other players better.' Individually, he can do a lot of great things."

Prior to his junior season, Paul established several individual goals that included statistical landmarks. He wanted to average 5-plus rebounds per game, for example, and barely missed that mark (4.7). Paul said his final season would be defined differently.

"Honestly, my individual goal is to lead the team to more wins. That's something we haven't done enough of," Paul said. "I feel like if we're winning that will put me in a better position individually. I want to be near the top of the Big Ten. A lot of people aren't really counting on us to be there. The underdog look has always been good to me."

"I don't have any set numbers in my mind. I've led the team in scoring, so that's not going to be anything new to me."

The injury occurred during a pickup game at Ubben Basketball Complex. Paul said he turned to chase a loose ball when he collided with Devin Langford's shoulder.

"I knew it was broken right away," he said.

Prior to the injury, Paul had been working with assistant coach Jamall Walker and staffer Brandon Miller, who was able to work with players when Groce had only two assistants.

"The workouts they're doing are incredible," Paul said. "They focus so much on your individual talent. It's not all the same. You find out what you need to do better and you work on those things. A lot of it is one-on-one with the coach. I just feel like these workouts are the type of workouts that I go through at home. These coaches, their basketball IQs are ridiculous, really, for lack of a better word."

If nothing else, the broken jaw forced Paul to get creative with his diet. After a week of smoothies, he graduated to a unique series of blended meals, including Chipotle burrito bowls and Potbelly's chili.

"I started blending up mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. Then this week I found out how to blend up a steak," he said. "Throw some A1 sauce on it to soften it up. Then a little bit of water to make it liquefied. I used a very powerful blender. Then I blended up some chicken with barbecue sauce. People say it's nasty. But it's normal to me now."

***

When the Assembly Hall hosts an NBA exhibition game between the Bulls and Cavaliers on Oct. 12, it will be the culmination of a lengthy process.

The exhibition game will be the first NBA event at the Assembly Hall since Deron Williams and the Jazz played the Bulls in 2008.

"We worked for about three years to get that 2008 game," said Kevin Ullestad, the director of the Assembly Hall. "And we've worked for about three years to get this one."

The Bulls are making their eighth appearance at the Assembly Hall. But there had been a long gap between exhibition games. Michael Jordan's Bulls played there in 1989. Then the Nuggets and Hornets played in 1991. It wasn't until 2008 when the Bulls returned.

The Bulls first played at the Assembly Hall in 1970. Ullestad said a longstanding relationship between the Bulls, United Center and the Assembly Hall made this latest appearance possible. Ullestad said the Hall also has talked with the Pacers about a game.

Tickets go on sale Aug. 21. Since it is a Bulls operation, the team handles all entertainment aspects, from Benny the Bull to the Luvabulls to their own P.A. announcer. The Bulls also are playing a preseason game in Ft. Wayne, Ind.

Oct. 12 also is the first day of practice for the Illini. NCAA rules require that student-athletes purchase their own tickets, however. The school can't provide them.

The 2008 exhibition game drew a crowd of about 14,000. The main draw was Deron Williams, who had 14 points, nine assists and a standing ovation. Rose had 14 points for the Bulls in his fourth exhibition game in the NBA.

***

There's a new frat house on the Illinois campus.

"It's more like a loft, actually," Devin Langford clarified.

Langford lives there, along with five of his closest friends — the sophomore class on the Illini basketball roster. The six second-year players are housemates on campus: Tracy Abrams, Ibby Djimde, Nnanna Egwu, Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Langford.

"It's kind of what everybody says, how close we are," Langford said. "We go to the gym together, go eat together, live together."

Langford (Huntsville, Ala.) and Djimde (Mali via Huntington, W.Va.) are the only roommates from out of state. The other four are from the Chicago area.

"As far as groceries, everybody puts in," said Langford, who claimed Abrams is probably the best cook in the house.

The living arrangement is for this summer, although the sophomores have signed a lease to move into another six-bedroom space in the same building for the school year.

***

No one is certain what to expect of Langford's playing career.

Not his teammates.

Not his coaches.

Not even Langford.

"I just really want to focus on winning," Langford said of his expectations for the 2012-13 season. "I felt like last season was a bad season. I feel like this year we can turn it around. My main thing is just being a team player and winning."

Langford pursued a voluntary redshirt last season and has four seasons of eligibility remaining. His ability is somewhat of an unknown.

What is known: Langford passes the layup-line test. He looks like a player at 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds. He works on the perimeter in workouts. Coaches are intrigued by his potential.

But there's minimal tangible evidence to indicate what he could become. Langford is still a question mark in game situations. He didn't play on last year's tour of Italy due to a thigh injury. After limited practice time, he had four points in 16 minutes in the Orange & Blue Scrimmage. Then he was sidelined for the two exhibition games with a finger injury.

"I'm just so much better, as far as my individual game and focusing on a lot of different parts of my game," said Langford, who will make a visit home to Alabama in August. "We really don't know what they're (the new coaches) like as far as actual games. But as far as workouts and stuff, it's pretty good. They know what they're doing.

"The workouts, they're tough. But at the same time you feel good about it because you're getting a lot better," Langford said. "You're working on stuff that you can actually use in game situations."

***

On the first day of the championship round at the Maui Invitational, Illinois will play Butler, Marquette, Mississippi State, Texas or USC. Matchups will be released Thursday.

The most likely opponent seems to be Butler or Marquette. Either matchup would present intriguing subplots. Groce was a Butler assistant and is friends with Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens. Brandon Miller played at Butler. Marquette assistant Isaac Chew brought a few days of drama — and bad blood — when he left after six weeks as an Illini assistant.

The Maui Invitational is Nov. 19-21. Illinois is 6-3 at the Lahaina Civic Center. However, the event isn't always an accurate gauge of how the season will play out. In the 2008 event, Illinois showed promise with blowout wins against Arizona State and Oklahoma State and a respectable loss to Duke. But the UI struggled to a 16-19 record that season.

***

One Illini sold on the summer workouts is Henry, the 6-6 sophomore wing.

"They (the new coaching staff) like offense, so I like them. You get up a ton of shots," Henry said after a pickup game at Ubben. "So I like the offense so far. Then there's a lot of freedom. That's what coach (Groce) says, 'If you feel like you can make a shot, then shoot it.' "

Henry is enrolled in two summer classes, both online. And the players have basketball homework, as well. Coaches assigned the players to make 11,000 shots over a span of eight weeks. The shots are calculated by a shooting machine called "The Gun," and players receive a printout of their running total.

"I'm working on my gun show," Henry joked. "I need about 2,000 more."

Two other sophomores are far ahead of the pack.

"Nnanna and Ibby, they're on 15,000 or 18,000 or something crazy like that," Henry said.

Henry said he varies his workout times, though he prefers a late-night regimen.

"I come in at about 12 at night, try to make 400-500 shots," he said. "I like working out by myself anyway. I get up more reps."

If there's one thing Henry enjoys, it's more shots.

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