CHICAGO — After Brandon Paul’s jumper fell through the net to secure Illinois’ 51-49 win against Minnesota on Thursday, his parents, Cliff Sr. and Lynda, celebrated a few rows behind the Illini’s bench.
The celebration, however, was short-lived for the Pauls, who left the United Center shortly after the game and headed east on Interstate 80 to make the five-hour drive to Cleveland to watch younger son Darius and Western Michigan play in the Mid-American Conference tournament.
“My parents mean a lot. They told us they were going to head out to Darius’ game, and I love them with all my heart,” Paul said. “I’ll probably see them again tomorrow. They’re super parents.”
Darius, a 6-foot-8 forward, was named the MAC’s Freshman of the Year after leading conference rookies in scoring (10.2 points per game). He averaged 5.9 rebounds per game and started 25 of 26 games for the Broncos.
Joseph Bertrand returned to Illinois’ rotation after sitting out the season finale Sunday at Ohio State with a shoulder injury.
Bertrand wore a black brace on his right shoulder and checked into the game against Minnesota at the first media timeout.
He didn’t show any apprehension, driving strong to the basket early in the first half and later finishing a baseline drive with a dunk.
“I practiced with it; it felt good. It didn’t really change anything in my game, so I didn’t think it would affect me much,” Bertrand said. “It’s always hard to sit out there and watch your team, not be able to play with them. It felt really good to get back out there.”
Bertrand had two points, a rebound and a steal in 19 minutes.
With Thursday’s loss, Minnesota’s place in the NCAA tournament isn’t as secure as it was entering the final week of the regular season, and the Gophers are going to sweat it out on Selection Sunday after losing three straight (Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois).
“It’s not a feeling that you want to go into Selection Sunday feeling,” Gophers guard Andre Hollins said. “We haven’t played our best basketball the last three games. We want to have faith. We have a pretty good resume; we had a good RPI.”
The Gophers entered Thursday with an RPI of 24 with the country’s second-toughest schedule.
“It’s out of our hands at this point,” Minnesota guard Austin Hollins said.
Another postseason award in the MAC that has some ties to the Illinois program is the Player of the Year. Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper, a suburban Chicago product, was named the MAC’s top player.
Cooper helped lead John Groce’s Bobcats to the Sweet 16 in last year’s NCAA tournament with wins against Michigan and South Florida.
The first-year UI coach keeps tabs on his old team, which is one of the favorites to win the MAC tournament along with Akron.
“I’m proud of him, and I’m proud of those seniors. They finished as the all-time wins leaders in the history of the school,” Groce said. “They’ve won two tournament championships; they just won a regular season championship. They’ve been to the tournament; they’ve won multiple games in the tournament.”
Cooper, who prepped at Seton Academy, recently became the first player in college basketball history with 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in a career.
“I’m happy for him and all those guys — everyone there,” Groce said. “Especially when you think when we got there, there was a vision in place to try to do all those things, and I think maybe some people would have looked cross-eyed at us. Those kids believed, and I said when I left I’d always have a place in my heart. I appreciate those guys a great deal.”
Illinois is playing in its first Big Ten tournament in 10 years without Bruce Weber, who went 12-8 in the event with a title in 2005.
Weber was fired after the Illini bowed out on the first day of the tournament last year and was hired a few weeks later at Kansas State.
He led the Wildcats to a co-championship in the Big 12 this season, tying Kansas and his predecessor at Illinois, Bill Self, en route to being named the conference’s Coach of the Year.
“He fell upstairs,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter, who played under Weber at Purdue and succeeded him at Southern Illinois. “He’s in the right place. Things happened for a reason.”
Michigan found itself in an unexpected position, playing on the opening day of the Big Ten tournament after losing a tiebreaker with Wisconsin for the No 4 seed.
The Wolverines took care of business against 12th-seeded Penn State on Thursday behind Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke’s 21 points. The Michigan backcourt will be the key the rest of the weekend and into the NCAA tournament.
“The game starts with the guards, and they’ve got great guard play. Trey Burke is as good a play starter, playmaker, on-ball defender as there is in the country,” ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “Tim Hardaway Jr. makes shots, especially when he’s coming off handoffs and screens.”
Freshman center Mitch McGary had a monster game for the Wolverines on Thursday (10 points, 11 rebounds), but consistency from the frontcourt is a concern for Michigan.
“Can they get some type of frontcourt scoring?” Greenberg said. “McGary is as good a freshman rebounder as I can remember. They’re so young up front. They’re a bounce of the ball away from having a share of the Big Ten championship. They’ve had a hard time with that freshman class getting over the hump against the best teams in the league. Glenn Robinson down the stretch, he’s struggled against the best of the best.”
Michigan’s opponent in Friday’s quarterfinal is Wisconsin, which is led by Big Ten Coach of the Year Bo Ryan. Once again, the Badgers were written off in the preseason when point guard Josh Gasser suffered a torn ACL, but they managed to finish in the top four in the conference for the 12th consecutive season under Ryan.
“They kind of reinvented themselves right at the start of the season,” Greenberg said. “They are a very good basketball team. They function within a system, they have great team trust, and their players are a lot better than anyone thinks.
“Their ability to win games down the stretch really speaks volumes to the job that Bo has done.”
Greenberg said an argument could have been made for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and said it was interesting that Tom Crean, who led Indiana to the outright title, didn’t win the award.
“Losing your point guard, your play starter, your playmaker, your voice, one of your best defenders; I think they made a good decision,” Greenberg said.