CHAMPAIGN — One of the main talking points after Illinois’ 74-68 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday at the Assembly Hall was Brandon Paul.
Illinois’ senior guard, who at one point was in the conversation for National Player of the Year honors, came off the bench for the first time this season and for just the third time in Illinois’ last 55 games.
“We got back Thursday night, we evaluated it defensively, we evaluated Friday’s practice defensively, Saturday defensively and we said we’ve got to make a statement that it’s not OK to have the type of defensive efficiency we’ve had in league play,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We’re going to play the guys that grade out the highest defensively and everyone is held accountable, the entire locker room.”
Joseph Bertrand replaced Paul in the starting lineup Sunday and played well, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Paul scored 13 points, had three assists and two steals in 25 minutes.
“I really don’t think it matters who starts anyway. We have a lot of guys that can start the game,” Bertrand said. “We have a lot of people who can definitely start. We’ve changed some lineups to see which one’s working well. Different lineups work for different games. Brandon, he’s a real good player. He’s going to be fine.”
Said Nnanna Egwu: “Coach Groce puts the guys out there that he thinks will help the team win. Brandon’s a great player, he came in and he did some good stuff. It just means we’re accountable for all our actions. Coach Groce holds us accountable for everything we do off the court. It’s just responsibility as a team, that’s the message that was sent.”
The move didn’t catch the Badgers off guard.
“I’m never surprised; 41st year of coaching, nah. Throw whatever you want at us, I’ll never be surprised,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
Michael Finke has been the talk of town while emerging as one of the top high school players in the Class of 2014.
But the 6-foot-9 Centennial forward, who committed to Illinois in December, is taking a back seat in his own home for a while.
Younger brother Tim, a seventh-grader at Franklin Middle School, is one game away from winning an IESA championship with the Knights.
Franklin is coached by Finke’s dad, Jeff, a former Illinois football and basketball player.
“It’s been fun to watch them. They played on Saturday and it was a great game,” Michael Finke said. “We’re really looking forward to Thursday’s (championship) game. You have a little different perspective watching from the crowd, but my brother is out there having fun and playing so well. It’s really been fun to watch.”
Michael Finke is coming down the home stretch in his own season with Centennial.
“It’s going pretty well right now, we’re just trying to finish up strong,” he said from his courtside seat Sunday.
Ryan’s team catches a lot of heat from all corners for the low-scoring brand of basketball it plays.
The Badgers rank eighth in the Big Ten, scoring 67.2 points per game and they lead the league in scoring defense (55.6). Wisconsin and the Big Ten in general often get labeled as playing a boring brand of basketball. Ryan refutes that claim, saying the defenses in the Big Ten are just really good.
“People announce a Big East game and it’s 49-46 with a minute to go and, ‘It’s a great defensive battle,’ ” Ryan said. “Wait a second, when we were in one of those it was termed a little bit differently. I just think it’s hard.
“People just tell me they say different things, I don’t read it and I don’t listen. I know what I call it; trying to play fundamental basketball, trying to be on the left-hand side (win column), that’s what I call it.”
With starting center Jared Berggren in foul trouble throughout, reserve big man Frank Kaminsky played a prominent role for the Badgers on Sunday.
The Benet Academy product scored 19 points and had five rebounds in 23 minutes.
It was Kaminsky’s second game back after missing three games because of an eye injury.
“It took the Ohio State game just for him to get back on the court. He was kind of lost at the Ohio State game because you come off that kind of injury, you worry about getting hit,” Ryan said. “He was cleared to play, but he’s still thinking about it.”
Kaminsky entered the game averaging 4.4 points and 1.5 rebounds. Ryan got on him in practice about not shooting with his protective goggles.
“I asked him if he was going to shoot with them in the game and if you are you’ve got to shoot with them in practice,” Ryan said. “I think he got pretty used to the goggles because we needed those free throws.”