EVANSTON — After they finished shaking hands with the Northwestern team they had just blitzed 62-41, Illinois players looked high atop the bleachers at Welsh-Ryan Arena to acknowledge the 150 members of the Orange Krush who made the trip to Chicagoland for Sunday’s game.
“I’ve said this since I was a freshman, the Orange Krush is the best student section in the country,” Brandon Paul said.
The Krush made its annual trip to a road game and entered the arena wearing Northwestern colors only to reveal their orange just before the opening tip.
“We hadn’t been to Northwestern in a while and in accordance with the ‘Our State. Our Team.’ slogan, it kind of made sense,” Krush vice president McKennon Biers said. “We reached out to Northwestern and told them we had a group for State Farm from around the Big Ten.”
The group left Champaign at 10 a.m. Sunday and stopped at Joe’s on Weed Street, an Illini-centric bar on the North Side of Chicago, and they were treated to lunch by the Chicago Illini Club.
“That was a pretty fun time,” Biers said. “We stopped on campus and everybody picked up some Northwestern shirts. They handed out towels — probably disappointed we took 150 of them, but we’re not giving them back.”
Krush members also infiltrated a timeout promotion put on by the Northwestern marketing department. Three members of the group, posing as NU students, took part in a tricycle race. As they left the court they lifted their shirts to reveal orange, and a huge cheer went over the crowd.
“I heard about this when I first got here, that the Orange Krush always goes to one away game,” transfer Sam McLaurin said. “When we saw them up there it was surprising, but it was great.”
The Illinois players and coaches were mobbed by Illini fans on the floor after the game. They took time to sign autographs and pose for photos.
“People care. We’re very, very fortunate and very, very blessed,” Illini coach John Groce said.
With his eight points on Sunday, Paul is one shy of reaching 1,500 for his career. The senior from Gurnee is 10th on the program’s all-time scoring list, 34 behind Andy Kaufmann for ninth place.
This final month of the season will be crucial for Paul in terms of his NBA future.
“He’s got the (NBA) athleticism, there’s no doubt about that. His shot looks good. Why are his (percentages) so low? You wonder about that,” an NBA scout said last week. “That’s an offense designed (for guards). At the next level he’s got to handle the ball. Not necessarily a point guard but handle the ball. Can he do that? I think that’s what people want to know.”
Paul entered Sunday’s game as Illinois’ top scorer at 16.7 points per game. He’s averaging seven points in the last three games, but he remains a valuable part of the Illini lineup.
“I thought Brandon Paul tonight had one of the best games he’s had all season and he had eight points,” Groce said. “I thought it was as good as he’s defended all night long. He was communicating, he was locked in, he had a really good all-around game.”
For the second consecutive Sunday, point guard Tracy Abrams came off the bench for the Illini. The sophomore from Chicago has started 25 of Illinois’ 27 games this season, but Groce has been making a point about defense lately and he’s starting the guys who grade out higher on film.
That’s not to say Abrams has been bad on that end of the floor.
“I’ve been doing that, so I stayed with it. I’ll be honest with you, it was a deal where he was almost a 70 percent grade-out coming into the game, which on our scale is between an A and a B,” Groce said. “Other guys just graded out higher.
“A month ago when we played this game we had four guys fail on the grade-out. It’s a good problem to have.”
Abrams didn’t let the move affect his play negatively. He finished with 13 points, four assists and three rebounds.
“He’s getting a lot better,” McLaurin said. “He’s learned as he shares the ball, the more he gets more people involved, the better our team is. You’ve seen the last couple of games, his assists numbers have gone up.”
A big reason for Illinois’ recent resurgence has been the play of D.J. Richardson. The senior from Peoria has been getting it done on the floor, scoring in double figures for eight straight games thanks to Sunday’s 18-point effort. He’s averaging 17.2 points in that span.
He’s also been a leader in the locker room. Ever since he called the team meeting before the Nebraska game, the Illini have looked like a new team.
“D.J. has been playing great. He’s always been that vocal leader and the guy who’s made big shots for us,” McLaurin said. “It’s the final games of his career here and he’s wanted to step it up a little bit and help us reach our goals.”
Even before his recent stretch of torrid play, Groce had raved about Richardson’s maturity and his approach to the game. It’s all coming now for Richardson, who also had eight rebounds Sunday, and the Illini.
“The biggest thing he’s figured out is when you give more to others, to your team, to your teammates, you end up getting tenfold in return,” Groce said. “He’s got that figured out. He plays the game the right way, he plays for the right reasons. He loves playing at Illinois, putting on that jersey, and because of that he has a very free and clear mind and is able to live in the present and lock in on the moment. I really think that’s been helpful and that’s the reason why he’s playing well.”
For the second time this season, four former members of the wildly successful Illinois Wolves AAU program were on the court with Illinois and Northwestern doing battle.
Three former Wolves — Joseph Bertrand, Abrams and Nnanna Egwu — suited up for the Illini. Dave Sobolewski represented the Wolves for Northwestern.
In addition to the players in college, the Wolves program boasts former National Player of the Year Evan Turner, who is now with the Philadelphia 76ers, and former Illini Demetri McCamey, who’s playing in the NBA Development League.
“It’s been real good for me. Coming up basketball really showed me a lot of things. Coach (Mike) Mullins runs a really good program, brought up a lot of players: Evan, Demetri, a lot of players came through there,” Bertrand said. “It’s good seeing the program being successful and the players come out of it being successful, playing well at the college level and an NBA level as well.”