Brandon Paul is on the watch list for the Naismith and Wooden awards.
He won’t win. Some Illini fans have made the point that, while Paul has a stronger national reputation, fellow senior D.J. Richardson could steal the Illini MVP award, just as Tracy Abrams did last year.
Unrealistic expectations have plagued the 6-foot-4 senior. It goes all the way back to his first two games when Paul collected 42 points as a freshman against SIU-Edwardsville and Northern Illinois.
But a penchant for turnovers and long-range hope-shots led to the same kind of criticism that followed two other Illini standouts, Frank Williams and Demetri McCamey.
The folks are never easy on their heroes. They always want more. Frank made it look too easy. Demetri sometimes seemed at odds with his coach. Maybe it’s the Internet age. Maybe it’s expecting more than their teams could give.
But on Saturday, with the Assembly Hall turning 50, Paul was a difference-maker on both ends of a gritty 72-65 defeat of Nebraska. Yes, his arc-shot chilliness continued (he is 28 for 100 since Christmas). But he was otherwise outstanding. He had 14 points, five assists and one turnover. He controlled the game.
Here was Nebraska, a 20-point loser to Illinois in Lincoln, drilling shots from all angles and carrying 50 percent accuracy into a 57-55 lead before cooling down in the last six minutes.
Shortly after beating the shot clock with an arching bull’s-eye that reminded of his famous shot against Ohio State last year, Paul drove to tie it, and DJR followed with the go-ahead trey at 60-57. Tracy Abrams finished it with a lay-in and six late free throws.
“Those two guards were a handful,” said Groce of Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley, the Husker aces whose catch-and-shoot skills accounted for 43 points. Illini defenders allowed them too many openings on the perimeter.
Groce, wearing an orange jacket “out of respect for this building and these seniors,” went to a zone “for a few possessions.” He considered it a risky move, and it paid off.
Stops are as critical as points in these showdowns, and the Illini reached 8-8 in the Big Ten and 21-9 by repeatedly tightening the screws late. In 30 outings, they haven’t lost a game in which they led late. Not once. They’ve pulled several out of the grave but have had none reversed late on them.
That says a lot for the hardworking Abrams and his senior teammates who, while showing undeniable shortcomings at times, developed a knack for tenacity in the clutch.
These strong late-game finishes — remember Indiana! — mean that Illinois is probably in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens from here on. But Groce & Co. won’t relax, being forced right back into the frying pan Tuesday for another tossup game at Iowa.
So here we are. It’s March. Nutty season. We all need shock treatments from trying to figure out these three-point crapshoots between 20-year-olds who sometimes play as though it’s AAU prime time.
Don’t tell me you were surprised Saturday. There’s too much contagious confusion for anyone to be caught by surprise. Here are a few that, wow ... did these things really happen?
— Minnesota, a loser in eight of 11 games, rocked Indiana 77-73 on Tuesday. Fooled me.
— Penn State, previously winless in the Big Ten, hit 10 of 20 treys Wednesday to stun No. 4 Michigan. Really?
— Duke’s 73-68 loss at Virginia on Thursday ignited another court rush and had the media buzzing. Can we count on something like this every 24 hours?
— That same night, Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma Sooners led 67-45 with 7:40 to go and lost. Is blowing a 22-point lead in less than eight minutes an NCAA record?
— Saint Louis mourned the death of coach Rick Majerus on Dec. 1. The Billikens have now won 11 straight under interim Jim Crews. Who’d a thunk it?
— Syracuse started 18-1,and has now lost three straight and six of 10. What in the name of Boeheim?
— On Feb. 23, Wake Forest had dropped eight of 10, and Miami was unbeaten in the ACC. You guessed it: Wake 80-65.
— USC was an awful 12-15 and rose up to defeat No. 11 Arizona 89-78.
Are you beginning to get the idea? As Groce said, regardless of what happened beforehand, “Each new game is fresh and different.”
I’m convinced. But tell me, did VCU really beat No. 20 Butler by 32 points Saturday. I’m shocked!
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.