- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are three things we’ve learned about Illinois during its non-conference schedule:
1. Illinois is an NCAA tournament team: The Illini and first-year coach John Groce have been one of the nation’s biggest surprises during the non-conference season and have proven they’re a NCAA tournament team. They’ve had their share of doubters from the season’s start after last season’s struggles, a change in coaches and the early departure of Meyers Leonard, but there shouldn’t be too many skeptics remaining. Illinois went 13-1 in its non-conference slate with quality wins over Butler and Gonzaga. Its only loss was a narrow one to Missouri in St. Louis. The Illini are currently at No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 8 in ESPN’s InsideRPI rankings. Illinois isn’t expected to run the table in the Big Ten or probably win the conference title, but it has shown it has the capability to be in the conference’s top half. If Illinois can finish .500 or better in a tough Big Ten, the Illini should be a lock for the tournament. The consistency of sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams, who scored 27 points against Auburn, and senior shooting guard D.J. Richardson, who is 4-of-22 from 3-point range in the last four games, could be the key to the conference season.
2. The Illini aren’t perfect: As good as Illinois has been, it does have its flaws. The Illini rely heavily on the 3-pointer, and it has been good and bad for them. It was big in their wins over Butler and Gonzaga, but it also led to their demise against Missouri and nearly led to a few other non-conference upsets. They’ve made 132 of 358 3-pointers in 14 games. By comparison, they were 186-of-611 from 3 in 32 games last season. Rebounding has to be a concern as well. Their problems on the boards were especially noticeable in the past two games. Auburn outrebounded Illinois 39-31 overall and 14-9 offensively, and Missouri outrebounded the Illini 58-35 overall and 22-14 offensively. Illinois has size with Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin, but it has had trouble against players with more weight and muscle on them.
3. Brandon Paul is a legitimate Big Ten player of the year candidate: Paul has always been hampered by inconsistency. He’s been up and down throughout his career. He appears to have changed that this season. Paul was pretty good nearly every game during the non-conference season. He even had a 35-point performance against Gonzaga. He’s averaging a team-best 18.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Just as impressive is he’s gotten to the free-throw line 95 times this season and is among the top-20 in the country in that category. He’s become a more balanced scorer. ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford has Paul among his top-30 prospects as well.