By MARCUS JACKSON
CHAMPAIGN — The casual observer might look at Brandon Paul’s numbers over the last three games and assume the senior is struggling.
Illinois’ top scorer (16.4 points per game), Paul averaged seven points in wins against Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern. That won’t land the guard on many postseason Player of the Year lists or All-America teams. According to those who matter, however, Paul is playing his best basketball of the season.
“I thought (Sunday) was maybe as good a performance as he’s had all year in all areas,” Illinois coach John Groce said Monday of Paul, who had eight points, six rebounds and five assists at Northwestern. “He rebounded the ball well. I thought his shot selection was excellent. He shared the ball. He made our team better. He defended well, he was active, made a couple hustle, extra-effort-type plays that prevented baskets with blocked shots and diving on the floor.”
Earlier this month Paul was taken out of the starting lineup because his performance on the defensive end wasn’t up to the level his coaches expected, and in crucial defensive situations late in games he found himself on the bench.
Paul has fine-tuned that part of his game and is back in the flow.
“We’ve focused on being consistent and leading and giving to others and trusting more,” Groce said. “He’s continued to do that at a higher level each day.”
As Paul has elevated his all-around play, so have the Illini, who are riding a four-game winning streak and knocking on the door of a return to the national polls.
An NCAA tournament berth, which seemed like a dream scenario two weeks ago, is almost a certainty at this point.
“I think his mind’s in a good place right now. He’s really soaking this all in,” Groce said. “As a senior, you start to count how many games you have left and how much you’ve got left in your season, and I think, as well as the other seniors, started to take that in and digest that a little bit.”
Entering Thursday’s game against Penn State at the Assembly Hall, Paul is one point short of reaching 1,500 in his career. He’s 10th on the program’s all-time scoring list, 34 behind ninth-place Andy Kaufmann.
“Brandon’s a neat kid, really smart. He really cares a lot about being a good player,” Groce said. “It’s great having him as a part of our program. He’s always one of those guys that’s doing extra on top of what you ask. He wants to be really, really good and wants to do special things.
“The assistant coaches do a great job with the positions they coach. Jamall (Walker) spends a lot of time with Brandon; we all do.”
By the numbers
A look at the week that was in Illinois basketball:
6 — NCAA tournament seed given to Illinois in Monday’s updated mock bracket by Yahoo! Sports.
46 — Votes received by Illinois in this week’s AP Top 25. The Illini, who last made the cut Jan. 14, are 29th in the rankings.
24 — Where N-G beat writer Marcus Jackson listed Illinois in this week’s AP ballot.
4 — Wins in a row by the Illini, their longest Big Ten streak since five straight in ‘10.