SPOKANE, Wash. — Illinois has been one of the national surprises during the early part of the college basketball season. One reason has been the steady play of senior guard Brandon Paul. Paul entered Saturday’s game at Gonzaga leading the 13th-ranked Illini in scoring (17.8 points per game) and assists (3.9). He’s scored at least 13 points in every game.
Once thought to be a surefire NBA guy, Paul’s stock slipped the last couple of seasons, but he’s playing at an NBA-type level again.
“The talent’s there, that’s a given,” said Jon Givorny, of DraftExpress.com. “It’s all about consistency with that guy. I’m in wait-and-see mode. He’s had huge games, then kind of disappears for a month. Why does he shoot so many jumpers? That’s been the story of his career. A million three-pointers, low free-throw attempts. Doesn’t finish around the paint enough.”
Paul will be on NBA radars no matter how the rest of the season plays out. He sure was impressive Saturday night, scoring 35 points on 10-for-16 shooting. It was reminiscent of his 43-point effort against Ohio State in January.
“Even if he goes undrafted, people are going to watch him because he’s so talented,” Givorny said.
Givorny said most NBA people will be paying close attention to Paul during the Big Ten season to see if he can maintain playing at such a high level.
“So far, it looks like he’s playing a lot better,” Givorny said.
Former Illini Stephen Bardo knows his way around Spokane pretty well. The ESPN college basketball analyst got his start covering games in the West Coast Conference and has been a regular at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“I’ve covered Gonzaga more than any team in the country, including Illinois, so this is just like home for me,” Bardo said. “I love it because this is underrated basketball. Not only the students, but the residents of Spokane are really knowledgeable about the game of basketball. This is the No. 1 sport. I love the passion of the fan base, and it doesn’t hurt to be on the west coast.”
Playing on the road in the Big Ten is tough, but The Kennel rivals any venue Illinois will visit in conference play.
“This will probably be the toughest place they come and play all year,” he said. “Breslin Center, Kohl Center — they’re all tough, but they’re much bigger. This is smaller, the students are right up on you. It’s an intimidating situation.”
When former Illinois guard Luther Head watches his alma mater on television, he doesn’t see any familiar faces. Head played for Bruce Weber and his staff at Illinois. Weber was fired and is now at Kansas State.
Head’s younger brother, Crandall, transferred out of Illinois last December and is waiting to become eligible at Southern Methodist, where Luther’s former teammate, Jerrance Howard, is an assistant coach.
“I watched a couple of their games. I missed the first seven, eight wins, they’re looking good,” Luther Head said earlier this week. “I don’t know a whole lot of people there anymore, everything is different. The floor is different. I’m still rooting for them.”
Head is back in basketball after taking about a year and a half off to give his body a break from the grind. He’s in the NBA Development League playing for the Austin Toros, a San Antonio Spurs affiliate.
“My body was messed up, just all around messed up,” said Head, who has spent time with the Rockets, Kings, Pacers and Heat. “I love it, it’s good to be back playing. It’s fun playing with these guys, everybody plays the right way, extra pass, swing it around. It’s pretty much the same it was at Illinois.”
Head doesn’t see his former Illinois teammates very often. They’re all out doing different things: Dee Brown and James Augustine playing overseas, Roger Powell coaching at Valparaiso and Deron Williams being an All-Star in Brooklyn.
“It’s good. Whenever I see them, we just pick right back up,” Head said.
Everywhere Head has played, he’s seen orange.
“We everywhere, man, we’ve got people everywhere,” he said. “We got some fans come out rooting for me. They show up everywhere.
Everywhere I’ve been, someone from Illinois has showed up.”
And though he doesn’t recognize much about the Illinois program these days “even the floor is different,” he said, he’s still keeping tabs.
“I watched the one in Maui, not the championship game, the one before that,” he said. “They look good, they look good. Who knows if the big fella (Meyers Leonard) would have stayed. He’s doing his thing in Portland.”
Gonzaga students camped out for Saturday’s game starting Thursday night in Tent City. One fan said “This is the biggest game ever.”
About 1,200 of the 4,800 undergrads occupy the entire lower section of the north side of the 6,000-seat arena.
“What happens is the week before the game, that Sunday, there’s a ticket distribution. Everybody comes and usually we have enough for everybody,” Gonzaga senior Nathan Heinrichs explained. “Then, the people that got tickets will tweet a spot on campus that everybody needs to run to in order to get a spot in line for tenting. At 12 o’clock, everyone is waiting and they see the tweet and they run. It’s always a landmark on campus. First person to get there represents their tent gets a spot in line.”
The Bulldogs hosted West Virginia earlier in the season. That was a big game. Illinois was bigger to the fans.
“This crowd is similar to the West Virginia crowd, but this is the best matchup I’ve ever seen at the Kennel,” Heinrichs said.