UI 64, Indiana 54: Notebook
INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago during the opening game of the Big Ten tournament, Brandon Paul was the hero. The then-senior drained a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer, sending Illinois to a 51-49 win against Minnesota.
On Thursday during the opening game of the 2014 tournament, Paul sat in the stands at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, across from the Illinois bench, barking out words of encouragement to his former teammates.
At the end of ninth-seeded Illinois’ 64-54 win against eighth-seeded Indiana, Paul delivered a salute to Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams.
“I definitely had to show some love and salute him back,” Abrams said after his 25-point performance.
Paul’s first season as a professional came to an end recently after he suffered a partially torn labrum and fracture in his left shoulder.
“I could have rehabbed it, but the season’s almost over, so I can get the surgery done now and recover for the summer,” Paul said.
The 6-foot-4 guard spent the first few months of his career playing professionally in Russia. He left that team last month and recently caught on with the Canton Charge of the NBA Development League before suffering the injury.
“It was definitely a learning experience. I got the chance to go to Russia for a few months and I got to see the world, so I’ll always have that. I learned a lot about myself out there and helped me get mentally tough,” Paul said. “I felt great with Canton. Unfortunately I got hurt, but spending that week with them was great. It’s a great staff. I learned a lot.”
It was the first Illinois game Paul had attended since he last wore the uniform in last season’s NCAA tournament loss to Miami. In Russia, he watched games on his computer via the Internet. He had been able to keep closer tabs in recent weeks while back in the States.
“It’s a little bittersweet. I want to get out there and launch some shots up. But it’s cool to watch and be a fan for once,” Paul said.
After Thursday’s win, Paul spent time in the Illinois locker room and caught up with former teammates and shared some laughs.
“It’s good to have guys come back and support us. He’s been doing well for himself, so it’s always good to see teammates doing well,” said Joseph Bertrand, Paul’s close friend.
Said Abrams: “That shows his character. Not a lot of people come back. Just to have him here supporting the Illini is big. It shows tradition.”
Paul will have an even stronger rooting interest in Illinois basketball the next three years because his younger brother Darius will be a sophomore on next season’s team. The younger Paul is sitting out this season after transferring from Western Michigan, where he was the Mid-American Conference’s Freshman of the Year.
“He likes it. He’s still got a little maturing to do. He’s doing great,” big brother said. “I talk to him every once in a while whenever he decides to answer his texts, and the coaches are telling me he’s getting better, stronger and putting on mass. I’m excited to see how he does next year.”
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During a good chunk of the second half, members of the Indiana Pacers, including All-Star Paul George and Andrew Bynum stood in the tunnel and watched Illinois and Indiana go at it. George signed autographs for adoring fans.
Also among the Pacers keeping an eye on the action was David West, the 11-year veteran. West had a rooting interest in the game. When West was the National Player of the Year at Xavier in 2003, one of the Musketeers’ assistant coaches was John Groce. The two spent a moment catching up before the game.
“I was doing something with the media, and he came up all 6-9, whatever he is, 250 pounds of him and gave me a bear hug. Dave’s the best. He was great to coach,” Groce said. “Guys like Dave are reasons why I’ve got the opportunity at Illinois, that our family has. I’m thankful for Dave. I’ve enjoyed watching Dave. I’ve enjoyed watching the Pacers play defense. If our defense is anything like theirs, we’ll be in good shape.”
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For the first time since the win March 1 at Michigan State, Jaylon Tate saw action for the Illini, playing one minute in the win against the Hoosiers. The freshman point guard missed the Michigan and Iowa games while rehabbing an ankle injury. It’s still not close to 100 percent, but Tate gave it a brief try Thursday.
“It’s been a slow process, but at the same time I’ve just been trying to get back healthy. I’m just excited that my team’s been playing well,” Tate said. “Tracy’s been playing some great basketball lately. He’s like an older brother and a mentor to me, and I look up to him. I’m just happy we got the win (Thursday).”
In Tate’s absence, Illinois has used Rayvonte Rice in spurts when Abrams needs a break. Rice played point briefly Thursday as Abrams played 37 minutes against the Hoosiers.
“Ray is just a good player. He’s not a natural point guard, but you’re not going to take the ball from him,” Tate said. “It’s just good seeing him step
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Earlier in the week, those inside the Illinois locker room felt like Nnanna Egwu was snubbed in not being named to the league’s five-man All-Defensive team. The junior proved his value against Indiana, registering two blocked shots in the first minute of the game en route to five overall. The 6-11 Egwu helped limit Noah Vonleh, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, to six points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“Big time, we all know that. He did a great job on him,” said Illinois’ backup center, Maverick Morgan, who also spent time guarding Vonleh. “(Vonleh) is a big, physical guy, an NBA player, but I thought we played him well. We trapped him in the beginning. I think that threw him off a little
Egwu did it all defensively for the Illini on Thursday, also guarding 6-foot point guard Yogi Ferrell on the perimeter.
“I’m doing what I can to stop him — trying to help him off ball screens, doing what I can do,” Egwu said.
Illinois players and coaches speak ad nauseam about Egwu’s defensive prowess. His contributions go beyond the box score.
“It’s huge to have Nnanna down there. Not just being a shot blocker, but altering shots, playing defense on Vonleh like that (Thursday),” Jon Ekey said. “He does a lot of little things that people don’t notice. He boxes out like crazy, so if he’s not getting the rebounds, other guys can. He just does a lot of little things down there that helps everybody. He didn’t make that team and we were disappointed about that, but he didn’t let it affect him.”
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Illinois’ trip from the team hotel to Bankers Life Fieldhouse was a short one. Staying at the Alexander, Illinois boarded the team bus and made the 0.1-mile trip to the arena for the game.
“It was different. We could have walked. I wouldn’t have minded walking,” Egwu said.
The good news, no need to worry about a traffic jam. Groce had some fun with his team’s proximity to the arena in his postgame comments.
“We’re going to worry about (Michigan) when we get back to the hotel,” Groce said. “I told them they can enjoy this one between now and the 45-second bus ride back to our hotel, and then we got to start to turn our focus on to a very good Michigan ballclub.”