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Saturday, January 5, 2013
Steadier Paul, Illini drop Ohio State

By Eamonn Brennan

The last time Brandon Paul played Ohio State at home, he didn't have just a career game -- he had anybody's career game.

That night, Jan. 10, 2012, Paul scored 43 points on 15 shots, including 8 of 10 from beyond the arc. More than a few of those shots were patently ridiculous -- a contested fallaway 3 from the corner, a bank shot from 20 feet, step-backs from every angle -- and they let you know pretty early on that Paul was just having one of those nights. Stand back and enjoy.

Despite all that efficient brilliance, Illinois still only barely toppled the Buckeyes, 79-74. In the end, the game was a weirdly telling sign of things to come: Paul went back to his usual inefficient self and Illinois lost 12 out of its last 14 games, turning a 15-3 start into a 17-15 finish that got its coach, Bruce Weber, summarily canned.

This time around, the home victory over Ohio State couldn't have been more different. Illinois didn't have to summon its very best; Paul didn't have to go off. He just needed to do what he's been doing all season. He just needed to be consistent.

Illinois guard Brandon Paul
Brandon Paul credits the freedom new Illinois coach John Groce has given him for his steadier play.
"I really do just think it's about consistency," Paul told ESPN.com via phone following Saturday's 74-55 cruise over No. 8-ranked Ohio State. "I'm a lot more consistent this year than I've been in the past."

It's simple but true. Last season, Paul's crazy 43-point breakout was an aberration in an otherwise choppy season. On Saturday, his 19 points on 12 shots (with 7 rebounds and 3 assists) was still one of the best performances on the floor (Illinois center Nnanna Egwu had 16 points on 10 shots, with 8 rebounds), and it was more in line with what we've come to expect from Paul this season. Last season, the guard still used 28 percent of his team's possessions -- the same as in 2012-13 -- but his offensive rating was a mere 95.2. Before Saturday's game, his 2012-13 mark was 111.4.

Paul's senior year has thus far been the best of his career, and it isn't even close. He's not only more "consistent," he's better, and so is his team.

How? Paul gives a lot of the credit to coach John Groce, who did a major set renovation on Illinois' offense in his first offseason with the team. Doing away with much of Weber's three-out, two-in motion, Groce instead spaced the floor. He frequently plays a four-guard lineup, runs much more high screen-and-roll, and allows 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Griffey to spot up from 3, where he's shooting 45 percent on the season.

All of this has helped Paul feel like he has more space to operate on offense -- he can take a screen or two, read the defense, attack the rim or dish to one of several perimeter options. But Groce has also done something much more basic: He has made his star guard feel trusted.

"He's given me, and continues to give me, more freedom," Paul said. "He knows if I make a strong decision with the ball he doesn't really have to worry about bad shot selection. We've all done a better job this year with bad shot selection, myself especially.

"He's given me the option to control the team, to control the game," Paul said. "He says to go at my pace, and make sure everyone else is on the same page. That definitely helps."

To be sure, Paul got plenty of other help in Saturday's victory. His teammates put in a balanced scoring effort -- Egwu picked up an off Griffey down low, while Tracy Abrams went 5-of-7 from the field and Joseph Bertrand added 12 points off the bench. It also helped that Ohio State went just 4-of-19 from 3. Deshaun Thomas needed 21 shots to get his 24 points, and the rest of his teammates combined for just 31 points on 28.2 percent shooting, easily the ugliest performance of the season from a typically good offensive team, albeit one that has yet to notch a marquee victory, and will have its doubters in droves. And 11th-ranked Illinois cleaned up all those misses on the glass, something the Illini struggled to do in Wednesday's Big Ten-opening loss at Purdue.

Illinois' victory also highlighted the sheer strength of the Big Ten, and just how difficult it will be to steal wins on the road in league play.

"You can't take one game off," Paul said. "You have to compete no matter where you're at. It's going to be like every year in the Big Ten -- there are going to be a lot of ups and downs."

Rarely was that more true than for the 2011-12 Illini, who went from an upset of a Final Four team and a classic 43-point performance to 17-15 with a fired coach. This season, the Illini have set about making those downs less down, even if the ups are never quite as high. In a word: consistency.

"We had balanced scoring, guys in double digits, guys were getting a lot of gang rebounds," Paul said. "I love these types of games."