Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said Friday he isn't at all surprised by the Illini's Top-10 ranking and undefeated start to the season.
The Illini began the season with their share of skeptics as they were coming off a tumultuous 2011-12 season which included winning their first 10 games and losing 15 of their last 22. The assumption was Illinois would need some time to get back on its feet after John Groce was hired to replace Bruce Weber and Meyers Leonard opted to leave school early for the NBA.
The Illini have proven otherwise. They've won their first 11 games, including the Maui Invitational and Gonzaga on the road, and have shot up to No. 10 in the country.
"I'm not surprised," Paul said on Friday morning. "I knew if we worked hard we were going to get some recognition at some point. For it to come this early, I'm not really that surprised. We go into every game fully expecting to win. We didn't pay attention to the rankings. When it came, it was pretty cool."
As much as Paul and his teammates are enjoying their current success, they're not content. They prefer not to think about last season, but that experience did teach them how quickly a season can turn sour.
The Illini do still have a tough road ahead of them. They have three remaining non-conference games, including undefeated Eastern Kentucky on Sunday, No. 12 Missouri in a rivalry game and Auburn at the United Center in Chicago, before opening the Big Ten season. The Big Ten currently has four teams in the AP Top 10 and six teams in the Top 20.
"We haven't done much," Paul said. "It's only 11 games into the season. We have a lot more to prove. We don't want to win our first 11 games and be satisfied."
One early concern for Illinois has been its play at home. The Illini needed a late 3-pointer to escape with a one-point win over Gardner-Webb. They struggled against Western Carolina at Assembly Hall and pulled out a 72-64 win. On Tuesday, they had to fight until late in the game to get a 64-54 victory over Norfolk State.
Paul believed the team's home struggles were fixable.
"We got to be mentally tough every game," Paul said. "We can't come into home and not be as mentally tough. We got to come more prepared. That comes with maturity."
Maturity is something Paul has shown in his game this season. Although he had shown flashes of being an elite college player, he rarely showed consistency through his first three seasons.
This season has been different. He's scored in double figures in all 11 games and has had five games of at least 20 points. In the team's win over Gonzaga, Paul put up a season-high 35 points on 10-of-16 shooting. His career-high is 43 points against Ohio State last season.
Paul's early play has also caught some NBA attention. ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford had Paul ranked No. 30 among the 2013 prospects and has labeled him a late first-round draft pick.
"I think just the (fast-paced) style of play is a lot of what I'm used to," Paul said explaining his consistency this season. "It's how my natural game is and I'm able to play to my regular ability. I have a lot more confidence, and I'm showing it on the court.
"I come into the game and know my role. My teammates know my role and put me in positions to score. They put the ball in my hands when the shot clock is running down and look for me to score. That's what they expect from me. I wouldn't expect any less."