- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- For the first two games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Butler Bulldogs looked like giant-killers, circa 2010 and 2011.
A buzzer-beater versus Marquette followed by a thumping of North Carolina in the semifinals set them up for another magical run, this time in Maui.
Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens and his upstart Bulldogs, Illinois had other plans.
While the game itself was periodically tight, the Illini led the entire way. With 10 minutes, 49 seconds left to go in the first half, they got their first double-digit lead and the Bulldogs got it down to single digits for only a brief stretch in the second half.
The win was a major validation for new coach John Groce, who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season and has brought his trademark aggressive offensive and defensive schemes to Champaign this season. The team looks completely transformed from Bruce Weber’s past few underperforming squads.
“I need to take a deep breath,” Groce said after the game. “You see the names that are on that trophy and it really puts it into perspective. The quality of this tournament. I think it’s the premier preseason tournament.”
“The thing I was probably the most proud of was our toughness,” Groce added. “Whenever you play Butler, you have to be tough. They are just so tough mentally and physically. They never beat themselves. … We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."
Asked to describe his style in one word, Groce responded, “Attacking.”
Stevens, for one, was impressed.
“Very rarely when you have a new coach come in, do the pieces fit to that system that well,” Stevens said. “It’s so perfect the way that John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”
The Illini got great shooting and rugged defense the entire tournament. They shot 40 percent from 3-point territory and made an impressive 20 of 21 free throws in the final. And the Bulldogs, who shot the lights out against North Carolina, struggled against UI's suffocating defense. Butler shot just 36 percent from the field for the game and was 7-of-28 from beyond the arc. Somewhere, Roy Williams is wishing that Bulldogs team had shown up Tuesday night.
Paul led all Illini scorers with 20 points and was named tournament MVP. Abrams added 17 while Richardson scored 14 and grabbed 9 rebounds.
While Illinois got another balanced effort on this night, Paul was the clear leader of the team. He hit a number of clutch jumpers, and when his shot quit falling, he began driving to the basket. After several years of being a player with pro potential, he’s finally performing at that level every night. What’s different this season?
“I think coach Groce’s offense really opens it up for us,” Paul said. “Not only that, just lots of work on the offseason, not only as a team but individually, and I think it’s starting to show.”
“Brandon Paul’s a pro,” Stevens said. “He’s a big-time pro. Not only because he shoots it, the way he shoots it, he creates distance on his drives. I think he’s as good of a pro prospect as there probably was in the tournament.”
Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, who plays the game reminiscent of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, produced a game-high 27 points on 6-for-13 shooting from 3. Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, was named to the all-tournament team and had, by far, the most memorable moments of the tournament. From his buzzer-beating 3-point heave to defeat Marquette, to his off-balance 3-point barrages against UNC and Illinois, he has given the Bulldogs a glimpse of what's to come this season.
“He’s got the green light,” Stevens said. “If he’s not feeling it, he’s got the same green light. I think there aren’t five guys that have played college basketball in the last 10 years that have put in as much time as him. So he deserves to shoot as much as he wants.”
For Butler, it’ll return in a month to a tough Atlantic 10 Conference. With Temple, Xavier, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis all in the league, the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full. But they are also showing again that they can hang with anyone.
For Illinois, it’ll return to an even-tougher Big Ten. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all contenders for the national title, while Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are solid as well. With the strong play of the Illini in this tournament, they should be right in the mix with those last three Big Ten teams for a NCAA tournament bid.