Demetri McCamey was point guard at Westchester St. Joseph. He ran the show during Evan Turner’s term there.
But in 2010, John Groce watched from his post in Athens, Ohio, as his former mentor, Thad Matta, turned over playmaking duties at Ohio State to the flamboyant 6-foot-6 junior.
Turner made too many turnovers at times (136) and hit a so-so 36 percent on treys, but Matta cheered his mistakes as well as his triumphs. Matta handed him a long rope, and Turner used it to earn National Player of the Year honors on a 29-8 team.
Maybe that’s when Groce realized this could work. Or maybe what we’re seeing is a response to necessity. Whatever the case, another lithe and extremely athletic product of the Chicago suburbs, Illini senior Brandon Paul, is limiting a tendency toward mistakes and serving Turner-like headaches to opponents.
After Saturday night’s 35-point devastation of Gonzaga (85-74), he’ll draw more attention than ever. They’ll start double-teaming him on top, and they’ll try to force him left.
But there’s a maturity to Paul that wasn’t present during his early years, and particularly in last season’s devastating 2-12 finish. He is a team player, and he is affecting every part of the game, whether it’s forcing turnovers, blocking shots or feeding an open teammate. He was the runaway MVP of the prestigious Maui Classic, and he’s the force behind the UI’s 10-0 start.
Underdogs have bite
The Illini weren’t projected to win in Spokane’s Kennel where Gonzaga was 110-7 (or was it 109-8?). Count the storms they had to weather:
— The fans were rabid in the 6,000-seat gym, many students camping out in tents to get prime seating;
— The inspired Bulldogs spurted ahead 12-3, breaking down the UI defense and hitting their first 11 non-arc shots to lead 31-20 after 12 minutes;
— Overwhelmed by Gonzaga’s powerhouse front line, Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey fouled out in just 18 minutes of play. The Bulldogs had 10 more free throw attempts.
But the Illini had an unstoppable Paul, and they displayed quick hands that forced 16 Gonzaga turnovers. After missing early, they matched their nation-leading average of 11 three-pointers. And if the UI defense was penetrated too frequently at the outset, Groce kept mixing zone with man, and the Illini held the hosts without a field goal during the last 7:45 of the first half while starting a string of seven straight bull’s eyes.
In breaking out of the 41-41 halftime tie, Illinois raced to a 68-59 lead with the most balanced explosion of the season. Myke Henry kicked it off with a trey, and seven members cashed fielders in a 27-16 run, whereupon Paul returned from a brief rest to produce 13 of the last 17 points.
‘We trusted the system’
Groce spoke again of “toughness and togetherness,” crediting the resiliency of the “older guys” who had struggled in Tuesday’s win against Western Carolina.
“We got popped in the mouth early but we hung in there. I told them to keep shooting because we were getting open shots, and they’d start falling. We kept believing. We trusted the system and we made some big-time plays at a high level.
“That Gonzaga team will win a lot of games. It’s not easy to beat a Top 10 team in this environment,” the coach said.
So the Illini stuck out their tongue at the naysayers from coast to coast. Considered a rank underdog, they beat Gonzaga for the third straight time, and two of them were in Seattle and Spokane.
Barring a letdown against Norfolk State or Eastern Kentucky — don’t forget, Illinois barely beat Hawaii and Gardner-Webb, not to mention Western Carolina — the Illini will be carrying a 12-0 target on their back in the sold-out showdown with Missouri on Dec. 22 in St. Louis.
How high can Illinois climb? Will the threes keep falling? Can Paul keep playing at an All-America level?
And, by the way, will this 10-0 start put fever back into the fandom? With only two home games prior to Ohio State on Jan. 5, the UI is running about 1,500 behind in student attendance and 4,000 overall. With tickets available for all games, a three-game $49 special will be announced for January dates with Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan. Those may be worth seeing.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.