CHAMPAIGN — The last time Brandon Paul did not reach double figures, it was a forgettable afternoon in Madison, Wis.
Wednesday night was only the second time this season the leading scorer for the Illini did not finish with a double-digit scoring output. Paul ended up with a season-low three points on 1-of-6 shooting in 22 minutes before he fouled out with 4 minutes, 47 seconds left in the game. The 22 minutes were Paul’s fewest since he played 16 minutes when Illinois played Chicago State on Nov. 27, 2011.
Not that it mattered much for Illinois, which had seven players score at least eight points, which equals the previous season-low Paul had at Wisconsin.
“I was thrilled with our unselfishness,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I think the biggest transformation is ... (Tracy) Abrams is playing at a really good pace. He’s really looking for guys and setting guys up. That’s allowed our offense to continue to get better.”
By the time the 12-minute mark in the first half arrived, six different players for Illinois had scored before Paul drained a three-pointer with 11:03 left for his only field goal of the game to give Illinois a 22-16 lead. Paul’s previous career low before Wednesday was two points at Nebraska last season, and he has finished scoreless four times in his career.
Since dropping a career-high 43 points against Ohio State last year, Wednesday night’s output was only the fourth time the guard from Gurnee failed to score at least 10 points. Paul, currently ninth on the school’s career scoring list with 1,491 points, is 43 away from moving past Andy Kaufmann into eighth all-time.
Eleven members from the 1962-63 Illinois team that won a Big Ten championship and played in the first game at Assembly Hall were honored at halftime on Wednesday night.
Among them was Tal Brody, who had his No. 12 raised to the rafters, although it wasn’t long until an Illinois player was on the court wearing said number. Guard Tracy Abrams wore No. 12 from the 16:11 mark on in the second half after a cut to his finger bloodied Abrams’ No. 13 jersey.
Brody, a point guard on that squad who later starred overseas playing professionally in Israel, is the third former Illinois player to receive that distinction this season, joining Mannie Jackson and Govoner Vaughn.
“The names I see on the jerseys that are hung is fabulous,” Brody said. “Everything I took over to Israel came from here.”
Former Illinois standout Dave Downey was one the 1962-63 members in attendance.
“Certainly having Tal join us, we’re in pretty company,” Downey said. “Seeing my old teammates is really what it’s about. The nice thing is everybody who’s alive got back. Bill Burwell and I spent all day just (Tuesday) reminiscing. When you get to be a certain age, memories are about all you’ve got. It’s fun.”
The 50th anniversary of Downey’s 53-point game against Indiana during the 1962-63 season is Saturday. Downey — whose point total is a single-game school record at Illinois — said he received a note on Monday from former Indiana player Jimmy Rayl, who scored 56 points a week after Downey’s outburst.
“Who would have thought that it would last 50 years,” Downey said. “It may last forever now.”
Joe Lunardi spent the past weekend stuck in the Northeast because of the winter storm that ravaged the area.
ESPN’s residential bracketologist, however, was able to take note of Illinois’ four-point win at Minnesota last Sunday, a victory Lunardi feels is more impressive than the upset win against No. 1 Indiana last Thursday.
“Teams will get juiced when No. 1 is coming in,” Lunardi said. “You could see it happening. I don’t know how probable it might have seen midway through the game, but you could see it happening at the start of the game. After a day and a half of getting patted on the back, to go and play a Minnesota team that’s about to be just as desperate as Illinois was, and beat them at their place, that sold me.”
Lunardi’s latest bracket, released on Tuesday, has Illinois slotted in at a No. 11 seed in a second-round game against sixth seed Notre Dame in Kansas City, Mo., avoiding one of the four first-round games in Dayton, Ohio. Prior to the Indiana game, Lunardi had Illinois among his first four teams out.
On a national scale, Lunardi said the Big Ten could land two No. 1 seeds. sIn his most updated bracket, he has Indiana and Michigan in that spot, but that was before Michigan’s blowout loss to Michigan State on Tuesday.
“A lot of times when we say loaded, we say loaded at the top or incredibly deep,” Lunardi said. “Here, we kind of have both. That is unusual and remarkable. I don’t know whether I would bet on multiple No. 1 seeds for the Big Ten because they can’t seem to sustain a winning streak long enough to hold it, but I’m thinking back to the year the Big East got three No. 1 seeds (in 2009), and the top teams in the Big Ten are of that level, particular to who they are in competition with.”
Lunardi has Duke and Miami as his other two No. 1 seeds, but can foresee those changing in the next few weeks.
“In terms of making my job harder, my job is to watch basketball and count to 68,” Lunardi said with a laugh. “I’m not going to compalin about it when it gets a little difficult. I’m told by the powers that be that it makes for good television.”
Cory Bradford arrived at Assembly Hall about 45 minutes before tip.
The former Illinois guard, who holds the NCAA record by making at least one three-pointer in 88 consecutive games, is on a two-week break from playing with his professional team in Colombia.
“I’ve got to get back there so I can get my tan back,” the 34-year-old Bradford said with a laugh.
Bradford, who resides in Chicago when not continuing his hoops career around the world, said Wednesday was his first game at Assembly Hall since attending the Illini’s win against Georgia Tech on Nov. 28.
“I always try to keep up with what’s going on with them,” said Bradford, who usually watches Illinois games on Slingbox, an application he can utilize on his phone or computer. “I’m very pleased, of course, with the progress they’re making. Being a player, you’re going to hit a rough stretch, but it’s how you respond to it, and they’re giving the response everyone is hoping for. Hopefully they can keep their streak going. I’m real proud of them.”
Bradford said he still keeps in touch with former Illinois teammates like Illinois radio color commentator Jerry Hester, Lucas Johnson, Joe Cross and Jerrance Howard, among others.
Enthusiasm is how Bradford describes Illinois coach John Groce.
“He brings you into his atmosphere,” Bradford said. “He feeds off of the crowd, and he feeds off of his players. He’s definitely one of those guys that, when you get to know him, he’s fun to be around.”
Bradford arrived back stateside last Thursday, just in time to watch the Illinois-Indiana game.
“I was pacing back and forth,” Bradford said. “My wife was watching one of the ‘Housewives’ shows, and she was giving me a look, and I said, ‘No, it’s not looking good.’ Obviously they made a run at the right time.”
Bradford is in his 11th season playing professionally, with most of his time in the Middle East and Europe. He spent parts of 2011 and 2012 in Qatar and Lebanon before he joined his squad in Colombia, where he just helped Bucaros de Bucaramanga win a championship.
“They have two, four-month leagues,” Bradford said, who will start playing in Colombia again on Feb. 22 through June, and then again from August until November. “It was actually fun because a change of scenery is never bad.”
Bradford said he wants to keep playing until “his body tells me not to.”
“Right now I’m feeling young,” Bradford said. “I’m going as long as my health takes me.”
Tim Doyle never had much success at the Assembly Hall. The former Northwestern standout. who graduated in 2007, did not win a game in Champaign during his three seasons with the Wildcats.
“I’ve always said this is the hardest place to play in the Big Ten,” said Doyle, who called Wednesday’s game on the BTN. “Maybe it’s because when I was playing they were awesome, but it’s something about this place. There’s a lot of dead spots on the floor, and it’s hard to shoot in here because it’s freezing cold. There’s a lot of things about it that when I walk in here I know why I never won here.”
Doyle wasn’t in town for last week’s two-point win against No. 1 Indiana, but the gregarious Doyle didn’t think too much of the crowd’s reaction.
“On TV, it looked weak to be honest with you,” Doyle said. “I was watching it in Chicago, and it almost looked like they were going to a funeral where they felt the outcome was inevitable.”
Doyle said the 12-0 start Illinois had didn’t necessarily have him writing in permanent marker an Illinois trip to Atlanta, the site of the Final Four.
“I was saying all year, even when they were 12-0, just wait until they get into conference and these coaches figure out what they’re doing,” Doyle said. “The coaches in this league are the best in the country. They’re going to make adjustments. Illinois, up until last week, had yet to make that adjustment. They showed me something last week. Of all the teams they’ve had here, there’s always been a lack of toughness and grit, and they proved me wrong.”
Doyle said the mixture of players former Illinois coach Bruce Weber brought in, combined with the style of play under Groce, is a combination that could lead successful results.
“What I really like is he’s preaching tougness and togetherness a lot,” Doyle said. “That’s a mind-set. If you believe, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to lose this game,’ then you will lose that game. He’s trying to change the culture here. If he gets Bruce’s players and runs his system, they’re going to win. Say whatever you want about Bruce Weber, but he got All-Americans and state player of the years. The style of play just didn’t mix with the talent. The style of play is in place for Illinois, which is the right way to play here with fast and exciting ball.”
Sam McLaurin has replaced Tyler Griffey in the starting lineup, but Doyle said both big men fill roles needed for Illinois to thrive.
“McLaurin adds a toughness to the team,” Doyle said. “Obviously, he’s offensively limited, but he plays really hard and he rebounds. He’s a guy every coach wants to have. Griffey could be a X factor. As we saw against Indiana and Minnesota, when he makes shots, it opens everything up.”
Rob Blackman was in his car last Thursday night. The Purdue radio color commentator flipped his satellite radio on and picked up the Illinois-Indiana game with Brian Barnhart and Hester on the call.
“I almost changed the channel, but I thought I’d stick with it and at least see if Illinois could keep it close,” Blackman said. “The rest is history.”
Coming into Wednesday’s game, Blackman had a hard time surmising how Purdue had won eight in a row in the series.
“Especially the wins here,” Blackman said. “I can see Purdue winning at Mackey Arena. Purdue has typically been awfully tough to beat at home, but to think we’ve had the success we’ve had here the last four tries amazes me. Every time we come over here, including Wednesday, I come over thinking, ‘How in the world can we beat these guys?’ And when the game’s over, I’m thinking, ‘How exactly did we do that?’”
Blackman thought Purdue’s win in West Lafayette, Ind., on Jan. 2 would kickstart Purdue’s season. Instead, the Boilermakers had gone 5-6 leading into Wednesday night’s game. Illinois, conversely, put together a 2-6 stretch in the eight games before wins against Indiana and Minnesota within the last week.
“I think John Groce is doing a heck of a job, that’s for sure,” Blackman said. “It helps when you inherit seniors who have played, but to get them to buy into a system as quickly as they have, gosh, the nonconference start that Illinois had was one of the better coaching jobs in all of the country.”
Blackman is among a bevy of media members who are having a hard time grasping what is going on this season in the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s best conference. Illinois’ win against Indiana reinforced that notion.
“This league is a crazy league,” Blackman said with a laugh. “We beat Illinois then Indiana beats us by 37 at home and then Illinois turns around and beats Indiana. You can’t explain it. It’s crazy.”
The Big Ten Tournament will return to Chicago March 14-17 for the first time since 2007, and tickets are becoming scarce.
Big Ten Conference spokesman Dan Mihalik said as of Tuesday that 300 all-session tickets for the event at the United Center were still available for purchase. Those tickets will remain on sale until they are sold out.
Illinois is 15-5 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center, including tournament championships in 2003 and 2005. Illinois advanced to the semifinals during the 2007 tournament, which attracted an average of 18,882 fans per session.
Illinois has an 8-8 record when the tournament is in Indianapolis, including losses in their first game the last two years at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
— Matt Daniels