College Basketball Nation: Brandon Paul

One of Illinois coach John Groce's biggest, or at least most interesting, challenges next season will be how he goes about replacing Brandon Paul. The senior guard had an up and down career, to be sure, and while his senior season was no different (Paul started as hot as any player in the country but finished the year having made just 32.5 percent of his 240 3s), he will be difficult to replace in a variety of ways, namely in the sheer number of possessions and shots he took for his team while on the floor. Paul wasn't always on, but when he was, he was as good as anyone in the country at creating his own shot.

Luckily enough, Groce found a long-term replacement in Paul's own family. On Saturday, Darius Paul, Brandon's younger brother, announced he would transfer from Western Michigan to play for the Illini:

On Sunday, ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers reported that the decision came about because of a "coaching staff change" at Western Michigan and "the desire to play at a higher level, according to his mother." But the bond Groce formed early in his tenure with his embattled senior -- which was evident as early as media day, and paid clear dividends throughout the season -- surely played a large role in the younger brother's decision to choose Illinois over a raft of quality offers, including those from Florida, Iowa State, Marquette, Miami (Fla.), Missouri, Nebraska and Nevada. On Saturday, Darius Paul watched his older brother accept Illinois' Most Outstanding Player award at the team's athletics banquet, which just so happened to coincide with his official visit to the school. Good timing.

Anyway, the younger Paul won't really replace the elder. For one, he's a big man, not a guard; for another, he'll have to sit out a year before resuming his final three years of eligibility. But he is a really promising player. Darius Paul averaged 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds and won the MAC Freshman of the Year award in 2012-13, with a particularly impressive offensive rebounding rate (12.8 percent) and some solid interior scoring (and 51 percent from 2) in just his first year. Darius Paul may not have garnered the same recruiting hype as his brother coming out of high school, and he may not be the same kind of player. But it's not a stretch to think he can make a similar-sized impact as Brandon -- and maybe, one day, leave Illinois the better player. Either way, nice get by Groce.

 
AUSTIN, Texas -- Somewhere lost in all the pomp, circumstance, inspirational montages and endless car commercials of the NCAA tournament is the little secret someone forgot to mention to Colorado and Illinois -- in order to win, you must put the ball in the basket with at least a modicum of regularity.

That's not to say the seventh-seeded Illini and No. 10 seed Buffaloes missed all their shots. But each did miss enough -- 11 straight for CU to end the first half; 14 in a row, including 11 3-pointers, for the Illini at the start of the second half -- to build unnecessary and frustrating drama into a game that could have been void of both. (Apparently it is in the contract of both teams that, since this is March, they must provide some madness. And boy, were the coaches plenty red in the face.)

But, finally, the drama came to a close, along with Colorado's season, as Illinois' 16-point lead -- built during CU's horrid shooting stretch -- was enough to withstand a 23-2 Buffaloes run -- made possible by the Illini's putrid shooting stretch -- to eke out a 57-49 win in the second round on Friday.

"It's easy to come back. It is hard to come back and win,'' CU coach Tad Boyle said. "Our scoring droughts are tough to deal with. We played well enough to win today. We just didn't play well enough down the stretch to win.''

It's hard to say Illinois (23-12) played well enough to win, either. The Illini shot 13 percent in the second half. But they pulled it out at the end.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams scored 13 for Illinois on 4-of-10 shooting, and added 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
"It was only fitting that the game was maybe as strange a game -- as far as the ebb and flow of it -- that I have been associated with this group,'' said Illinois coach John Groce. "We have done it the hard way with this group a lot.''

"We just find ways,'' said Illinois guard Tracy Abrams.

Now it is time for Illinois to try to find a way to win against Miami, which appears to be about as intimidating as Tony Montana. The Illini get the No. 2 seeded Hurricanes here in Austin on Sunday. So they get to deal with size -- three players of 6-foot-10 or better in the rotation; speed -- Shane Larkin moves like mercury on marble; and an experienced coach -- Jim Larranaga has been there, done that, with much less talent, just a few years ago at George Mason. It appears to be a daunting task for an Illinois program that slogged through the first nine games of its Big Ten schedule at 2-7. Miami started ACC play 13-0, by the way. Oh, and the Hurricanes had a 27-point win over then-No. 1 Duke.

"I know that they have got great size and they are going to play very hard,'' Groce said.

Illinois had its win over a No. 1, too, beating Indiana 74-72 on Feb. 7. So the Fighting Illini are capable. But they also need to be held culpable for their errors. It was those errors -- all 14 of them in a row -- plus a couple of turnovers, that might leave some wondering just how big a mismatch Sunday will be. (Did anyone mention Miami won 78-49 and had nine guys score in the first half against Pacific on Friday? Well, it did.)

OK, there are a few glimmers of hope. Illini guard Brandon Paul didn't improve his shooting percentage -- he is a 40 percent guy -- but did make 9 of 10 free throws, five of which helped seal the game. In fact, for as bad as the Illini were from the field (30.8 percent), they were solid from the line (70.8 percent).

"D.J. [Richardson] was in my ear, telling me to just keeping fighting,'' Paul said.

Then there was the defense and the rebounding. Illinois has now held two tournament teams under 50 points in its past three games -- Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and Colorado (21-12) on Friday. The Illini, despite giving up 14 rebounds to Josh Scott, were able to win the battle of the boards 37-36. And that was crucial in a game where misses were rampant -- and will be crucial again against the taller, thicker Hurricanes.

Illinois proved it could close. After failing so miserably from the field and falling behind, the Illini finished on an 18-5 run. One might say that they looked into the abyss and didn't blink. Miami looms large; if they can look at the Ibis and do the same, they just might be OK.

CHICAGO -- Quick reaction to Indiana's 80-64 win over Illinois on Friday.

Overview: When Indiana's offense is clicking, when it is breaking opponents down with spacing and fluid ball movement, there is no more entertaining and (for opposing defenses, at least) fearsome sight in basketball.

That was the state of the Hoosiers' attack for almost all of Indiana's second-round Big Ten win over Illinois, but especially in the first half, when IU opened up a 22-7 lead in the first 12 minutes and went into the locker room leading 35-21. The Hoosiers were doing what they do: flipping the ball around the perimeter, finding easy shots and lanes to the bucket and creating turnovers and long rebounds on the other end, which they quickly turned into fast-break points.

But for a few pushes in the second half, Indiana controlled the game, riding its typically brilliant offense to yet another impressive win.

Turning point: As expected -- because most Big Ten games are apparently incapable of happening without at least some measure of suspense -- the game tightened in the second half. With less than nine minutes to play, Illinois cut IU's lead to just eight points. Anyone who saw Illinois' comeback win in Champaign in February had to assume something similar was in store. Instead, IU got a handful of stops, Victor Oladipo finished a pretty drop-off pass from Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford hit a 3 from the wing, and the Hoosiers were back in charge 65-52. They handled their business the rest of the way.

Key player: Cody Zeller. The Indiana center had 14 points (on 6-of-8 from the field) and six rebounds in the first half Thursday. He dominated Illinois' overmatched bigs in the half court and beat them down the floor in the fast break, something he does better than any big man in the country. Zeller finished with 24 points and nine rebounds on 9-of-11 from the field, and that only scratches the surface of the kind of game he had. Oladipo blew everyone's mind with a late 360-degree dunk, and drew the standing ovation and a long chant when he left the court, but Zeller was just as good.

Key stat: Not only did Indiana finish well above a point per possession, but it held Illinois guards Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson to a combined 9-of-38 from the field. The Illini were always going to have trouble stopping the Hoosiers, but with their guards stifled, they simply had no chance.

What's next: IU moves on to face the winner of the No. 4/No. 5 game, Wisconsin versus Michigan, at the United Center on Saturday. The Illini will head back to Champaign for rest and recuperation before they gather around the television to discover their NCAA tournament seed Sunday afternoon.

 
CHICAGO -- Here's a quick look at Illinois' 51-49 win over Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday at United Center.

How it happened: Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul hit a fadeaway, mid-range jumper at the buzzer to give the Illini the win. Illinois led by 12 points in the first half, but surrendered the lead when Minnesota opened the second half on a 20-9 run and went ahead 36-34. The Illini trailed the rest of the game until D.J. Richardson hit a 3-pointer with 44 seconds left to tie the game at 49. Illinois forced a turnover with 14.6 seconds left to gain possession for Paul's game-winner. Austin Hollins led Minnesota with 16 points.

What it means: Illinois and Minnesota both still may make the NCAA tournament, but the Illini have to feel much better about their chances after Thursday's win. The Illini hadn't won a Big Ten tournament game since 2010.

Player of the game: Paul scored a game-high 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting. He was the only Illini player with more than six points. He also had five rebounds and two assists.

What's next: The Illini will play Indiana, who had a first-round bye, in the quarterfinals at 11 a.m. CT Friday.
Tyler Griffey Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTyler Griffey was an even bigger man on Illinois' campus after his buzzer-beating winner Thursday.
A heavy unease has permeated the entire country.

There are no guarantees right now. No easy nights. No assumptions except for the fact that no team is safe.

With so many letdowns, upsets and surprises, it’s risky to invest in numbers. It’s not wise to believe in “talent” alone. Nothing makes sense today.

Illinois’ illogical -- but fitting -- come-from-behind 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana on a buzzer-beating layup in Champaign on Thursday night was simply the latest thriller in a season packed with late-game theatrics and stunners.

I figured I’d witnessed this act in the past. At some point, Indiana would extend its 65-54 advantage with 6 minutes, 46 seconds to play, I thought.

And then it happened. Again.

A struggling team refused to die in a matchup it had no business winning. The Fighting Illini had gone from a seat in the royal palace (12-0 start) to a role as national jester (2-7 start in the Big Ten). Their NCAA tourney hopes were evaporating. Their dreams of a finish in the top tier of the league in John Groce’s first season as coach had become a laughable fantasy.

Until the final two minutes of Thursday’s game -- the only game that mattered for a team without promises.

The Illini, a team I’ve criticized and questioned all season, decided to fight. A D.J. Richardson 3 (game-high 23 points, 4-for-8 from long range) cut Indiana’s lead to five points with 2:53 to play.

Wow.

Another Richardson 3-pointer with 2:05 to go. A two-point deficit for the Illini.

What’s happening?

A Victor Oladipo layup followed a Richardson jumper, resulting in a 72-70 lead for the Hoosiers. Just 52 seconds to go. A fortnight in a year filled with last-minute turnarounds.

Brandon Paul tied the game on free throws. Oladipo committed a turnover in the final seconds but glided down the floor like Spider-Man and swatted Richardson’s potential game winner.

This is crazy.

Just 0.9 seconds to play. Enough time for a shot but not enough time for a good one.

And then a wild thing happened in that final nine-tenths of a second. Indiana, a squad ranked 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy) prior to the game, abandoned the area near the rim in a confusing defensive possession.

[+] EnlargeTyler Griffey
AP Photo/John DixonThis shot was the difference between 2-8 in the Big Ten and a win over No. 1 that saved the season.
Cody Zeller drifted toward the perimeter as Tyler Griffey snuck behind him, galloped down the lane and converted Paul’s inbounds pass for a layup that has to be one of the most perplexing game winners in recent memory.

Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!

This is the norm now, I guess. A 13-2 rally for the Illini in the final 3:36.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Illinois overcame the second-largest halftime deficit in a win over a No. 1 team (12 points) in the past 15 years. It’s the sixth loss of the year for a No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll -- the fifth consecutive week this has happened.

What’s so surprising about Illinois' win is that Indiana played well throughout the game even though it committed 14 turnovers. The final four minutes cost the Hoosiers the game, but they belied the overall stats.

The Hoosiers connected on 50 percent of their field goals (52.9 percent from the 3-point line, 92.9 percent from the charity stripe). Indiana is the first No. 1 team since the 1996-97 season to shoot 50 percent or better from the 3-point line and lose, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Illinois entered the day with a BPI of 70, five slots behind Illinois State. Yet the Illini now have victories over Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and Indiana. If La Salle, Virginia and Iowa are still in the at-large conversation, Illinois is in the conversation.

As for Indiana … questions. The Hoosiers are still jousting with the concerns about their challenges outside Assembly Hall. This was supposed to be the tuneup for a crucial matchup at Ohio State on Sunday.

And for the bulk of this game, the Hoosiers were in control. They were not rushed. They were not hurried. They were not worried.

The Illini exploited that calm as other teams have in matchups against favored conference title contenders in recent weeks. TCU over Kansas. Indiana State over Creighton and Wichita State. Arkansas over Florida. Saint Louis over Butler. Villanova over Louisville and Syracuse. South Dakota State over New Mexico. LSU over Missouri.

Most of those matchups were road games for the ranked.

We all recognize college basketball’s parity. We all know that we’re still waiting for a great team to rise. But the limited separation within the Top 25 is based on the ongoing problems those squads have had on the road.

Away games are always tough -- I get that. But it feels as though the difficulty has been elevated in 2012-13. Every night, it seems, another proven program falls.

Those hostile venues have been the stages for many upsets, a statement backed by everything that happened in the closing minutes of Indiana’s loss at Illinois on Thursday night and everything that occurred in college basketball prior to that.

In closing, here are five quick thoughts on the upset:
  1. A young man (South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters) scored 53 points in a win Thursday, and he’s not even the top story in college basketball right now.
  2. Indiana at Ohio State on Sunday is the biggest game of the season for the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, if it wasn’t already the most significant matchup of the year for the latter.
  3. The Illini deserve a lot of credit for what they overcame in that win in Champaign.
  4. I may owe this Illinois group an apology after weeks of questioning its heart, toughness and talent.
  5. I certainly owe the game a promise: I’m through with assumptions.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is super psyched about conference play.

No. 8 Minnesota at No. 12 Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, BTN: I love this time of year. We're off and running with all-out conference play -- the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West finally get down to business tonight, and we get to start learning a lot about those very fascinating leagues -- while the Big Ten, which has been going at it for more than a week (and two games each) already, is still early enough in the game that we can't be remotely sure how everything is going to pan out. This is especially true of Illinois.

To wit: Before Big Ten play began, most of us -- heck, even most optimistic Illinois fans -- assumed that Illinois would come crashing back down to Earth sooner rather than later. The Illini had a nice nonconference season. First-year coach John Groce changed their offense, Brandon Paul put it all together, the team got hot and shot and made a bunch of 3s, but surely that model wasn't sustainable, was it? Surely the poor-rebounding, so-so-defending Illini were destined to live and die by that long-range shot, and that would be the story of their season.

After Saturday's victory over Ohio State, I'm not so sure. The Illini got the benefit of home court and a horrendous shooting performance by the Buckeyes, but even so, they rebounded 77.5 percent of their available defensive boards. Paul said after the game that was Groce's biggest focus in practice -- Groce knew his team was among the worst in the Big Ten at keeping opponents off the glass, and he had to correct it. And, at least for one game, he did.

That makes tonight's home game against Minnesota totally fascinating. A week ago, you might have said the Illini had a small chance against the Gophers, primarily because Minnesota is the single best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Illinois can't keep anyone off the glass. And that might still happen; Illinois hasn't met anyone like Trevor Mbakwe yet, and it's entirely possible Minnesota's balance, athleticism and ability to chase down its own misses make the key difference in a tough Big Ten road game. But we now at least have to allow for the possibility that (a) Illinois has the ability to rebound the ball well against good teams, at least at home, and (b) the shape of Illinois's abilities, and thus its season, could be so much more than the 3-point shot.

No. 24 UNLV at No. 25 New Mexico, 10 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: In the past five years, the Mountain West has become one of my favorite leagues to watch, and not just because the basketball is typically really entertaining. It's because everybody's hungry.

UNLV is a traditional power whose fans are desperate to rekindle the glamorous glory days. San Diego State is a sudden and heretofore-unseen beast whose relatively young student section (The Show) might also be the country's best. (San Diego State fans are scrappy. They have no interest in your codified college hoops hierarchy; earlier this season, they took immense pride in beating UCLA, outnumbering its fans in the Honda Center, and trash-talking for weeks afterward. Naturally, I think they're fantastic.) New Mexico's Pit is a brutal, intense place to play; coach Steve Alford has redeemed his career within its confines. These are fan bases and programs that have long existed outside the world's hoops attention, but they've seized it back -- all together, almost at once.

This has been the case consistently in recent seasons; what makes this year different is the league's sheer depth. Boise State won at Creighton in November; Wyoming is one of the country's last four unbeaten teams. Colorado State returned basically everyone from last season's NCAA tournament visit, and are playing even better basketball this time around. We could very well get six NCAA tournament teams out of this league. The Pac-12 probably would settle for four.

All of which is a way of saying that this game, even though it's an early January conference opener, is huge for both teams. For UNLV, it's a chance to correct the defensive woes that cost them a road loss at North Carolina before the New Year, a chance for brilliant star freshman Anthony Bennett to get his MWC feet wet in one of the toughest places in the country to do so, and it's a chance to steal an early victory from a legit conference title contender on its own floor. For New Mexico, it's a chance to bounce back from a road loss at St. Louis last week and a chance to open the league season with a win over a very talented but very green title favorite.

For the rest of us, it's a first look at what this fantastic conference is going to be all about this season. Frankly, I can't wait.

Elsewhere: The A-10 is also kicking things off tonight, and Butler at Saint Joseph's is an awfully good way to start. The veteran Hawks were picked to win the league but have really flailed since; this would be a really handy way to turn things around. … Iowa State travels to Kansas, and while the Cyclones are almost certainly underrated (they really defend), it's hard to see how they get out of Lawrence with a win. … The Big East's two favorites both have eminently winnable games on the road, as Louisville goes to Seton Hall and Syracuse sojourns to Providence. … Don't sleep on Ole Miss. It'll be ugly going at Tennessee, but the Rebels' only two losses this season came by a combined five points. They could be an SEC sleeper. … It's conference madness out there tonight, so be sure to stop by for our ESPN Home Court live chat this evening, and see here for a full schedule of tonight's games. Enjoy, you silver-tongued devils, you.
C.J. McCollumKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsDespite a foot injury, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum could have the best overall offensive game in the draft.
Here are yours truly's 10 big thoughts from the first January hoops Saturday of the year:

1. C.J. McCollum's injury looks like a real bummer. Before we eulogize McCollum's season, it's important to note that we don't know exactly what injury caused him to watch Lehigh's near-miss 59-55 loss at Virginia Commonwealth from the bench, crutches in tow. During the game's broadcast, it looked an awful lot like McCollum said "I broke my foot" to a teammate. But that, revealing as it may be, is not an official doctor's diagnosis. After the game, Lehigh coach Brett Reed told reporters "there may be a break," but didn't want to say anything definitive until McCollum received more tests. In short, it really seems like McCollum broke his foot, but there's a chance that's not the case.

That uncertainty makes it hard to know whether McCollum is doomed to miss the rest of his senior season. It also makes it impossible to know how, or whether, his injury could affect his NBA draft status. Last season, McCollum exploded onto the national scene (and the NBA radar) with a sublime 30-point performance in No. 15-seed Lehigh's upset of Duke. He eschewed the NBA to return for his senior season -- his family didn't need the money, he wanted to get his degree, and he wanted to play his final season with his teammates. His performance has been just as good as last season -- at 25.7 points per game, McCollum entered Saturday as the nation's leading scorer -- and his draft status has only improved. He is widely considered a safe first-round pick (Chad Ford ranks him at No. 13).

All of which made it a huge shame to see him get injured, and disconcerting to wonder if that injury could play a role not only in his and Lehigh's season, but in McCollum's upcoming draft circuit. I don't know any college hoops fan, writer, analyst, player or coach (well, OK, maybe the Patriot League) that doesn't want to see McCollum on the floor this season. As Dana tweeted earlier today: fingers crossed.

2. Ohio State is worrying me. Don't get me wrong: Illinois was impressive Saturday -- Brandon Paul & Co. are looking as consistent and self-assured as ever -- and, yes, it is going to be hard to win on the road in the Big Ten this season. But Ohio State's offense just laid an absolute egg in the 74-55 loss. Actually, check that. That's an insult to eggs. (Eggs are delicious!)

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY Sports Thad Matta got 24 points from Deshaun Thomas, but no one else stepped up on offense for OSU.
No, Ohio State's offensive performance was worrying because Illinois' defense really hasn't been all that good this season. When the Illini have beaten good teams, they've typically done so because they simply outshoot them on the offensive end. But the Buckeyes held Illinois to 8-of-27 from beyond the arc and still lost by 19. How? OSU went 4-of-19 from 3 and 20-of-60 from the field. That's one answer. The other answer is that even when the Buckeyes shoot it well, their lack of a reliable interior anchor (Amir Williams still isn't there) can make them look downright average.

3. Pittsburgh is making it hard for me to tell you how underrated it is every week. In fact, I'm starting to think the Panthers so much enjoyed spending their November and December miles below the radar that they decided to open Big East play with a couple of losses, just to throw everyone off the scent. Throughout nonconference play, Pitt's per-possession efficiency numbers painted the portrait of a top-10 team. Their schedule was so bad, however, that after a close loss to Michigan in Madison Square Garden, there was no win to point to to help back up the numbers. So I said Pitt was underrated. A lot. Like, every Monday, when they remained unranked. After a Big East-opening home loss to Cincinnati and today's loss at Rutgers -- well, I still think the Panthers have big potential, but I'll probably be a bit more demure about it for a few weeks.

4. Speaking of Cincinnati … Pittsburgh wasn't the only Big East team with a weird loss on its docket Saturday. The Bearcats followed their New Year's Eve Big East-opening win at Pitt up with a … wait. What? A 53-52 home loss to St. John's? Really? That is a reasonable approximation of how I reacted when I saw that result. The Johnnies entered this one 8-5, with losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville mixed in. But they managed to hold UC to .75 points per trip -- just a hair under their own mark of .77 -- and D'Angelo Harrison, a gifted but maddening offensive player, made the pull-up jumper in winning time. I'm not sure you want to draw any larger conclusions from this one, at least not yet. But we'll file it away nonetheless. Weird.

5. Bucknell-Missouri might have been the game of the day. Hard-core college hoops fans already knew. Mid-major enthusiasts did, too. And NBA scouts have long since gotten wise. But the rest of you: If you were not aware that (a) Mike Muscala is the real deal, and (b) Bucknell is to be feared, then at least Missouri's 66-64 home victory over the Bison gave you the gift of this knowledge. Muscala -- a real pro prospect, and as polished a low-post player as you may find in college hoops -- finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in Columbia, and the Bison would have won were it not for Phil Pressey's 26 points, many of which came at crucial junctures throughout the second half. This was a great game, and a great showcase -- not only of Pressey and a still-improving Tigers team but of one of the nation's best and most casually overlooked big men. (And by the way, with McCollum's injury, Bucknell is the overwhelming favorite in the Patriot instead of the slight favorite.)

6. Is Kansas State the second-best team in the Big 12? First of all, word to Kansas, because it's gotten to the point where the best any non-KU member of the Big 12 can hope for is "best non-Kansas team." That is dominance. This season, though, that dynamic is also thanks to the obvious dearth of quality in the Big 12. Baylor and Iowa State can't guard, Texas can't score, Oklahoma is meh and West Virginia has been a massive disappointment by any standard. (Speaking of which, what the Huggins is wrong with West Virginia this season?)

Oklahoma State and Kansas State are the two obvious contenders for non-Kansas honors, and K-State got a big win at Bramlage Coliseum today to further its case. That said … it is hard to win at Bramlage. I'm not quite ready to make the Wildcats the favorite runner-up over OSU. But as Jason King wrote, if Rodney McGruder (MCGRUDER! /guitar slash) plays like the star he was Saturday, Kansas State's defense and rebounding will give it a shot.

[+] EnlargeJordan Loveridge
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsThe Arizona Wildcats have certainly been living on the edge, but it still adds up to 14-0.
7. "Arizona just wants it more." This is the kind of phrase you hear when a team wins a lot of close games. It is a phrase you might have heard about Arizona after it knocked off Florida and San Diego State, both one-possession victories decided in the final moments. But then you get the Sabatino Chen Shot", and that whole thing about "wanting it more" and "making plays when they matter" goes out the window, because that was just plain referee-caused dumb luck. So what do we make of the Wildcats' 60-57 home win over 8-6 Utah? I think we can safely say that Arizona, at least right now, has a nasty habit of playing down or up to its competition. Actually, I shouldn't even say "up," because Arizona is legitimately good, and the Wildcats didn't have to play "up" to beat Florida at home, or SDSU in Hawaii. But you don't want to be leaving teams like Utah -- losses: Sacramento State, SMU, Cal State Northridge and Arizona State -- chances to beat you in the final minute of games. Eventually, luck turns.

8. OK, Shabazz Muhammad. I see you. When UCLA's star freshman made his debut at Madison Square Garden, he was still a bit out of shape from his offseason injury, and UCLA was still in the midst of an early-season feeling-out period that threatened to devolve into something far worse, and quickly. But the Bruins have recovered since -- they've won seven in a row, including games over Texas, Missouri, Cal and, today, Stanford -- and Muhammad is starting to look really good. In UCLA's 68-60 win over the Cardinal, he dropped 23 points on 6-for-12 shooting, with 10 rebounds and a 10-of-13 mark from the free throw line. Muhammad isn't an Anthony Davis-level game-changer. We get too carried away with our hype sometimes. But he is playing some really great offensive basketball right now. It's no longer possible to be unimpressed.

9. Miami might be OK without Reggie Johnson. The Hurricanes' big man is likely to be sidelined until mid-February, and when that news first came down a couple weeks ago it was a real blow. Johnson was having a great senior season, and Miami was playing really well with him anchoring the low block. The consensus was the Hurricanes would take a hit, another bit of bad luck for a coach (Jim Larranaga) who has had nothing but since arriving in Coral Gables. But Wednesday's second-half domination of La Salle and Saturday's impressive road win at Georgia Tech make me think that Miami just might be all right without Johnson. It's not ideal, of course. But the Canes could make do.

10. I have no idea how good Maryland is, but I'm excited to find out. After the Terrapins lost to Kentucky in their season opener in Brooklyn, N.Y., there was buzz that this team -- led by transformed star center Alex Len -- would be one of the nation's great redemption stories, or at least a sleeper in the top half of the ACC. Since that opener, Maryland is undefeated: 13-0, many of those wins by double digits, nary a real scare in the mix. And I have absolutely no idea how good Maryland actually is! Its schedule has been so bad to date that it has been difficult to gain any real insights. The Terrapins' per-possession, adjusted-efficiency numbers are intriguing (they shoot and defend well, rebound their own misses and don't foul), but not without warts (they turn it over a ton, and force turnovers at one of the nation's lowest rates).

So, Saturday's 94-71 victory over Virginia Tech was nice, I guess, but the Hokies are fading fast. Coming up for Maryland is a home game against Florida State, a road trip to Miami and a home game with NC State. Now that should shed some light on the subject.

A few more quick-hitters:

  • Purdue fans freaking out about the Branden Dawson "punch" on Travis Carroll: It was so egregious that neither coach nor player brought it up after the game. Let it go (and also stop using the word "thug," ew).
  • Considering how bad Wake Forest has been this season, I was genuinely shocked to see the Deacons down only 15 points in the second half at Duke. Yes, I said "only."
  • Emerging star Kelly Olynyk was too much in the end, but Santa Clara gave Gonzaga real problems Saturday night. The 12-4 Broncos haven't played the nation's greatest schedule, sure, but they're going to be a brutal out in the WCC. Nice bounce-back season
  • Impressive win for Northern Iowa at Illinois State. After playing like one of the best mid-majors in the country in November and December, the Redbirds have lost their first three Valley games.
  • Creighton got all it could handle from sneaky-good Indiana State, and Gregory Echenique -- who is often overlooked in the Creighton-praise calculus -- was the difference.
  • And last but not least ... how about those Towson Tigers?! Last season, Towson was famous for going an entire calendar year without winning a basketball game. The Tigers finished 1-31 and were a Bottom 10 member far too often for anyone's taste. On Saturday, Towson won its seventh -- yes, seventh -- game of the 2012-13 season, a 69-66 victory at Drexel that made the Tigers 2-0 in the CAA. You might be tempted to lament how disappointing Drexel has been, and understandably so, but I'd prefer to celebrate the miraculous turnaround of the previously hopeless Towson Tigers, who also won at Oregon State last week. Hear hear.
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.

[+] EnlargeIllinois guard Brandon Paul
AP Photo/Darrell HoemannBrandon 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."

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

December, 21, 2012
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New week, new Big Ten power rankings, new No. 1. Let's dig right in:

1. Michigan: Indiana's loss to Butler Saturday -- and the fashion in which it came -- prompted some legitimate near-term questions for the Hoosiers. But it's not like Michigan only gets this spot by default. Quite the contrary. The Wolverines are 12-0, have an All-America-level point guard (Trey Burke) running a balanced, hyper-talented team, and as such play some of the most efficient offense in the country. Michigan has its weak spots on the defensive end -- it doesn't force many turnovers, for one -- but the Wolverines don't allow opposing offensive rebounds, and they don't foul. They're the real deal.

2. Illinois: It does not make me an Illinois "hater" (haterz!) to assume that the Illini will not finish above Ohio State and Indiana through the rest of the college hoops season. I mean, I'm ready to have my perceptions altered and all, but even at 12-0 the Illini haven't been playing as well on a per-possession basis as many of the teams now sitting below them in my rankings. And, you know, so what? John Groce's team is still shooting the ball well enough from the perimeter to keep all those attempts looking like the right strategy, and Brandon Paul is still playing well, and the Illini beat Butler on a neutral floor (cough, Indiana) and Gonzaga at the Kennel. I think Illinois is probably the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league by February. But right now, it would be a disservice to move Illinois any lower than this.

3. Ohio State. Nonconference games don't get much bigger than what the Bucks have on tap Saturday. Kansas comes to town. Why is this so important? For one, it's Kansas, a good, tough team that will push the Buckeyes to the limit (particularly on the low block, where Jeff Withey's height poses a major matchup problem). For another, Ohio State had just one other nonconference game of note this season, and it was at Duke -- a game the Buckeyes could well have won. Other than that, Ohio State has a pretty weak noncon schedule. Saturday's game is massive.

4. Indiana. Don't worry, Hoosiers fans: Indiana won't languish this low in the rankings too long. But there's nothing wrong with a little medicine right now. On Saturday, IU was outworked by a Butler team with a fraction of its talent. Cody Zeller was beaten up by Andrew Smith. Tom Crean was outcoached by Brad Stevens. The Hoosiers were outrebounded, outfought and outthought, and couldn't put away a team missing three starters to foul trouble in the final minutes of overtime. Zeller needs some physical help along the front line -- the arrival of Hanner Mosquera-Perea should be a step in the right direction there -- and the Hoosiers still need to shore a few things up on defense. They'll get there.

5. Minnesota. It's becoming a weekly routine for me: I dig around for some college hoops stats, I check in on Minnesota, I make sure they're still ranked No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding, I write as much in the power rankings. And so it is again this week, as the Gophers haven't played since last week's 13-point victory over a really solid North Dakota State team.

6. Michigan State. Thursday was tough on the Spartans. Right up until he unveiled that Duke T-shirt, MSU fans were still holding out a ton of hope that star recruit Jabari Parker would decide to take his talents to East Lansing. Instead, Parker passed, citing his positional similarity with Branden Dawson (a fair point). The good news: The Spartans you know are still a very good defensive team, and they rebound the ball on both ends of the floor. If they can cut down on turnovers -- particularly by not allowing so many possessions (13.9 percent) to turn into steals -- Keith Appling and company have a ton of potential. (Saturday's home date versus Texas should be a win, but beware that Longhorns defense.)

7. Wisconsin. It will come as no surprise for me to tell you that I base most of my statistical analysis -- i.e., the stuff I use to help me see the game, in addition to actually seeing the game (word to ESPN3 and Synergy Sports) -- on Ken Pomeroy's measures of per-possession performance. Currently, Wisconsin is ranked No. 16 overall. Much as it pains me to say this … that number is untrustworthy, even if it isn't quite as off as you might think. Wisconsin's four losses (at Florida, Creighton, Virginia, at Marquette) are all to good teams, and Bo Ryan's squad did put an utter beating on a decent Cal team. But we still haven't seen Wisconsin beat anyone really good. The Badgers have a ways to go yet.

8. Iowa. Hey, don't mind me -- just hanging out on the Iowa Big Ten sleeper bandwagon again. Oh, I'm all the way back on. Sure, sure: I was critical of the Hawkeyes after that loss at Virginia Tech, but that's because I didn't realize Virginia Tech was actually a really good offensive team (and that Erick Green was a legit All-America type this season). But after being somewhat dismissive, the Hawks swept their state foes (Iowa State and Northern Iowa) in back-to-back weeks. I already have Indiana fans telling me they're dreading opening the Big Ten season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on New Year's Eve. All aboard!

9. Northwestern. The Wildcats got a quality home win this week, beating Texas State 74-68 … wait a second … how do you only beat Texas State 74-68 at home? It's Texas State! (No offense to Texas State.) I'll tell you how: When your best player, guard Drew Crawford, is sidelined for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, you're bound to experience some difficulties pulling away from inferior teams. The Wildcats had a chance to stay in the middle of the Big Ten race this season, but that Crawford injury might be a killer.

10. Purdue. I maintain faith in Matt Painter's ability as a coach; indeed, he's probably already underrated, and at this rate will definitely remain so. The Boilermakers play good defense. They do not play particularly good offense. Surrounded by a young team and no real developed interior, one-time glue guy D.J. Byrd has tried to morph into a catch-and-shooter star. It hasn't worked. The lackluster loss to Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic last Saturday wasn't pretty, but it had nothing on the 47-44 loss to Eastern Michigan that preceded it. Yuck.

11. Nebraska. How offensively challenged are the Huskers? I could give you a handful of statistics, like their rank -- No. 251 -- in points per possession, or cite their paltry offensive rebounding and inability to get to the free throw line. Or I could tell you that Nebraska scored 38 points at Oregon last Saturday, or exactly 0.59 ppp. In the words of Jesus Quintana: laughable man.

12. Penn State. No jokes or Lebowski references here. We all knew the Nittany Lions were going to struggle without Tim Frazier, and that's what's happened. To wit: Last Saturday, Penn State had to battle to hold on for an overtime home victory against Delaware State. But hey, at least the Nittany Lions are battling.

Wooden Watch: Jason King's POY ballot

December, 13, 2012
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video Mason Plumlee is the best player on a Duke squad that owns victories over Ohio State, Louisville, Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU and Temple. You’d think ranking him No. 1 on this week’s Wooden Award ballot would seem like a no-brainer.

It wasn’t.

As the season wears on, Creighton forward Doug McDermott is making a strong push to overtake Plumlee for the No. 1 slot. I’m not ready to catapult McDermott past the Blue Devils' forward just yet. Plumlee, after all, has excelled against far superior competition and might even be a better NBA prospect.

Still, there may not be a better all-around player in the country than McDermott -- and I’m darn near certain no one means as much to his team as the Creighton junior, who earned first-team All-America honors last season. It should be a fun race to follow.

Here’s this week’s ballot:
  1. Mason Plumlee, Duke -- The Blue Devils played only once last week, but the 6-foot-10 Plumlee made the most of it by scoring 16 points and snaring 14 boards in a 23-point win over Temple. Plumlee has scored at least 16 points in every game this season.
  2. Doug McDermott, Creighton -- The son of Bluejays head coach Greg McDermott scored 30 points in Sunday’s victory over Akron and has averaged 26 points in his past five games. McDermott is also grabbing 6.7 rebounds per contest. He averaged 8.2 rebounds last season.
  3. Russ Smith, Louisville -- The junior guard makes his debut on this list following a 31-point performance against UMKC. Smith leads the No. 6 Cardinals in scoring at 20.3 points per game. His 3.3 steals rank fifth in the country.
  4. Brandon Paul, Illinois -- The Illini pulled off one of the more impressive feats of the season by whipping Gonzaga at The Kennel on Saturday. Paul’s 35 points keyed the victory. He’s averaging a team-high 19 points and 3.5 assists under new coach John Groce.
  5. Cody Zeller, Indiana -- The sophomore averages 15.4 points for a squad that leads the country in scoring. Zeller is also grabbing 8.9 boards per game. He had 19 points and 19 rebounds against Central Connecticut State on Saturday.
On the cusp:

Trey Burke, Michigan -- The Wolverines are still undefeated thanks to Burke, who is shooting 61.1 percent (22-of-36) in his past three games.

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State -- The Cousy Award finalist had 21 points in Saturday’s victory over Evansville. The most impressive thing about the senior is that he’s making just a hair under 50 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse -- The sophomore point guard leads the nation in assists (10.4) and ranks second in steals (3.8).

Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State -- Not many players in America are as well-rounded as the 6-5 Franklin, who averaging 19 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

Erick Green, Virginia Tech -- Even though he missed a potential game-winning jumper in a loss at West Virginia, Green deserves to be on this list. He ranks second in America in scoring with 24.4 points per contest.

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati -- The junior guard is averaging 20 points for the nation’s fourth-ranked offense. He shoots 50.4 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from 3-point range.

Alex Len, Maryland -- One of college basketball’s top pro prospects in the paint had 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks against Monmouth on Wednesday.

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh -- The nation’s scoring leader at 24.9 points, McCollum had a huge game against St. Francis on Saturday, tallying 29 points and hitting all 11 of his foul shots. He also grabbed nine rebounds.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State -- One of the top pure scorers in the country averages 20.6 points per contest while shooting 48.6 percent from the field.

Jeff Withey, Kansas -- The nation’s top shot-blocker and overall defensive presence was rather quiet with 8 points, 7 rebounds -- and, oh yeah, 5 blocks -- in Saturday’s blowout of Colorado.

Video: Illinois 64, Norfolk State 54

December, 11, 2012
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Tenth-ranked Illinois pulls away late to top Norfolk State, 64-54. Brandon Paul had 14 points and eight rebounds for the Illini.

Numbers to Know: Weekend recap

December, 10, 2012
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Player of the weekend: Brandon Paul, Illinois Fighting Illini
Paul scored 35 points to power Illinois to an 85-74 win at Gonzaga. It takes a performance like that to beat Gonzaga in Spokane. Last year, it was Draymond Green’s 34 points for Michigan State.

Prior to Paul’s performance, Green had scored the most points for an opponent in a win at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Then again, it’s just Gonzaga's eighth loss there since the arena opened in 2003.

Following his 43-point performance last season, Paul is the only active player from a major conference with multiple 35-point scoring efforts in his career.

Stat sheet stuffer: Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State Sun Devils
Bachynski recorded the first triple-double in school history in Arizona State’s 87-76 win over Cal State Northridge. The junior center finished with 13 points, 12 blocks and 12 rebounds.

Over the past 15 years, the only other major conference player to have those totals in a game was Jeff Withey, who did it two weeks ago. The last two Pac-12 players with points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles were Brook Lopez (2007) and Loren Woods (2001).

(Also of note from the weekend: Bethune-Cookman’s Adrien Coleman had the first triple-double in his school’s history.)

Passer of the weekend: Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse Orange
Carter-Williams put up 15 points and 16 assists in Syracuse’s 108-56 win over Monmouth. It’s the third-most assists in school history, and the most since Sherman Douglas’ D-I record 22 in 1989.

He’s joins Georgetown’s Kevin Braswell (2002) and Providence’s Vincent Council (2010) as the only Big East players with a 15-point, 15-assist game over the past 15 years. Carter-Williams also threw in five steals and four blocks. Not surprisingly, he’s the only player to post such a 15-15-5-4 line in at least the past 15 seasons.

Freshman of the weekend: Anthony Bennett, UNLV Rebels
Quintrell Thomas had the game winner, but it was Bennett who did the bulk of the damage in UNLV’s 76-75 squeaker over California. With Mike Moser suffering an injury just five minutes into the game, Bennett finished with a career-high 25 points and 13 rebounds.

He now leads all freshmen with 19.5 points per game, and is on track to be the first freshman to average 19 points and 8 rebounds per game since Michael Beasley (2008) and Kevin Durant (2007). The last UNLV player in any class to average 19 and 8 was Isaiah Rider in 1993.

Winning ugly of the weekend: Georgetown Hoyas
Look away if you are a fan of scoring. The Hoyas shot just 29.2 percent in their 46-40 win over Towson. That is the lowest for Georgetown in a win since 2000 against Louisville. Georgetown has now held three straight opponents below 42 points for the first time since the 1942-43 season.

Closer Look: Illinois 85, Gonzaga 74

December, 9, 2012
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Overview: No. 10 Gonzaga (9-1) confirmed every perennial doubt about its ability to compete with more athletic and versatile squads from power conferences. No. 13 Illinois proved that it can compete with elite teams, even on the road. This was a big victory in John Groce’s first season. His team was down by double digits early but recovered. It was the Illini’s first nonconference road win over a top-10 opponent since 1986 against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs led 12-3 in the first three minutes of the game, but the Illini clamped down defensively and ended the half tied at 41. Gonzaga didn’t react well to its opponent’s defensive physicality. And it completely lost Brandon Paul (35 points), who was option A, B and C for the Illinois offense. The Zags couldn’t quiet him, no matter what they tried. In the end, Paul made plays that helped the Illini separate down the stretch.

Turning Point: This game was played in waves. Gonzaga led 31-20 with 8:18 to go in the first half after Kevin Pangos hit a 3. But the Zags made just one more field goal for the rest of half as Illinois forced six turnovers during that stretch and closed that gap. But this game never felt completely settled until Paul turned a four-point game into a seven-point advantage for the Illini when he drove and drew a foul on a Kelly Olynyk with 2:29 to go to put them ahead 78-71.

Why Illinois won: The Illini won in part because they shook off an early funk and got serious on defense. But really, Paul exploded. He was clearly the difference in the game. He was better than everyone on the floor. But the Illini also deserve credit for their defensive effort. With 10 minutes to play, Gonzaga was shooting 40 percent from the field in the second half, a major difference from the first half when it shot 61 percent from the floor. Paul’s effort was critical for the Illini’s improvement.

Why Gonzaga lost: The Bulldogs looked content to coast after their quick start. Illinois adjusted and Gonzaga mishandled possessions and missed shots. The 16 turnovers, their second-half shooting slump and Paul’s performance were just too much for them to overcome.

Star of the game: Paul. It was his night. He had 35 points (10-for-16, 10-for-11 from the free throw line), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks.

What it means for Illinois: It’s too early to know. It was a great win for the program. The Illini beat a tough Gonzaga squad on the road in front of a raucous crowd. But they did it with an uncanny effort from Paul. He won’t play like every night. To compete throughout the rugged Big Ten season, they have to win on Paul’s ordinary days, too. I think there’s reason to be excited in Champaign. And Groce deserves credit for what he’s achieved so far. But it’s not time for an over-the-top celebration quite yet. Illinois has to prove that it can win high-caliber games when Paul doesn’t play out of his mind.

What it means for Gonzaga: It means the Zags have to get tougher. That’s always the story. They weren’t tough enough mentally or physically. They were at home and an Illinois team that essentially relied on one player bounced back from a double-digit deficit to win by double digits. That shouldn’t happen. But the Zags looked soft on defense. They play Kansas State and Baylor in the coming weeks. Similar defensive efforts will lead to similar results, I assume.

What’s next: The Illini return to Champaign for their next two games. They’ll play Norfolk State on Tuesday and Eastern Kentucky next Sunday. Both are tune-ups for their Dec. 22 matchup against No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis. Gonzaga will face Kansas State (Dec. 15), Campbell (Dec. 19) and Baylor (Dec. 28) in its next three matchups.

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.

The Fighting Illini, behind strong performances from guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams, defeated Butler 78-61 in Wednesday's championship game.

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."

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
AP Photo/Eugene TannerJohn Groce is off to a 6-0 start in his first season as Illinois coach after the Illini handled Butler.
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.

Maui Invitational Day 2 roundup

November, 21, 2012
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Here are some observations from the second day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

  • After dominating Mississippi State on Monday, the North Carolina Tar Heels got a rude wake-up call versus Butler on Tuesday. On Monday evening I wrote: “North Carolina has much more talent, but the Bulldogs are scrappy and well-coached. The Tar Heels are more of a finesse team. The physicality of Butler could give the Heels problems.” That’s exactly what happened. North Carolina was outrebounded 36-27 and Butler beat them to just about every loose ball.

    After the game, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams admitted that he had the better players, but Butler and coach Brad Stevens had the better, tougher team. “They were more physical, more assertive and more aggressive,” Williams said. “They're really good. Brad's clubs are really intelligent. I like their toughness and their intelligence more than their talent, and I'm not trying to put down their talent. But I love their toughness and their intelligence.”

    UNC clearly has the talent, but does anyone on this team have the toughness the Heels needs to go deep?

    Sixth man P.J. Hairston was, for the second night in a row, the best and toughest Tar Heel on the floor. It might be just a matter of time before Williams puts him in the starting lineup.

    Most disappointing was forward James Michael McAdoo. In the tourney-opening blowout against Mississippi State, McAdoo was solid on offense, but had four mind-boggling turnovers, prompting Williams to comment after the game that “we can’t throw the basketball around.”

    On Tuesday night, McAdoo had seven turnovers to go with his 10 points and five rebounds. Williams isn’t the only one miffed by the performance of his big man.

    Most of the NBA scouts and general managers in the audience savaged McAdoo for his performance the past two games. “He looks good in a basketball uniform,” one GM told me. “But after that, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to like. He’s a pretty good athlete, but he isn’t very skilled and he doesn’t go hard all the time. There’s not one thing he does that really stands out about his game. He certainly hasn’t played like a top-five pick.”

    [+] EnlargeJames Michael McAdoo, Andrew Smith
    AP Photo/Eugene TannerUNC's James Michael McAdoo, here getting blocked by Butler's Andrew Smith, hasn't impressed NBA observers in Maui.
    McAdoo is currently ranked No. 6 on our Big Board Insider -- but could be in for a drop if he doesn’t start picking it up.
  • Illinois continued its impressive run in the tournament with an 84-61 win over local underdogs Chaminade on Tuesday. The Illini got balanced scoring -- Brandon Paul scored 13 points, D.J. Richardson had 11 and Joseph Bertrand 14. The Illini are off to a 5-0 start, but they haven’t really been tested yet. Butler should give them everything they can handle and will be the favorites to win it all after dominating North Carolina. But don’t count out Illinois. The team is playing with a lot more aggressiveness and discipline under new head coach John Groce. It has a terrific backcourt in Richardson, Paul and Abrams and size up front.

    A win in the tournament will be a huge boon to the Illini's confidence. They aren’t in the same class as Big Ten elite teams such as Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, but they, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, may be a very tough outs in the league. I won’t be surprised if the Big Ten gets eight teams into the NCAA tournament this season.
  • A number of my tweeps laughed at me Monday when I said that NBA scouts were intrigued by Butler freshman Kellen Dunham. I don’t think they are laughing anymore. Dunham bounced back from an awful game versus Marquette and really put the dagger in the Tar Heels in the second half. He ended the game with 17 points and was 5-for-9 from beyond the arc. He’s still a little tentative and passed up a few open shots in the game, but his stroke is flat-out pure. Dunham isn’t your average mid-major guard. He was ranked as a top-100 player by ESPN and was an NBA camp invitee. Dunham isn’t a one-and-done prospect, but as he continues to get stronger and more confident, he could have a future in the pros after his junior or senior years of college.
  • The Texas debacle continued Tuesday with a 59-53 overtime loss to USC. The good news? The Longhorns didn’t get blown out this time and played with more urgency. The bad news? Offensively this team is just a mess. When (or is it if?) the Longhorns get Myck Kabongo back, they’ll be better. But I don’t think he has the talent alone to turn things around. There just isn’t a lot of talent around Kabongo. Sophomore Sheldon McClellan has struggled in Maui, going just 8-for-25 from the field and 1-for-11 from 3. Freshman big man Cameron Ridley was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the country by ESPN, but he’s looked out of shape and overwhelmed in the early going.It could be a long year, Texas fans.
  • Marquette fans, meanwhile, are hoping they have found a go-to scorer in junior Vander Blue. For the second consecutive game, Blue led the team in scoring with 18 points and three assists versus Mississippi State. Blue has always had the talent, but he has struggled with consistency and aggressiveness in the past. What’s different this year? “I'm just playing with a free mind and just playing off my teammates,” Blue said. “Junior [Cadougan] is a great guy, and everybody's going to double Davante [Gardner], so that pretty much leaves me open for shots. So I feel like if I'm making those shots, our team is a much better team. I'm not trying to do nothing that we don't do every day in practice.” Blue’s versatility, toughness athleticism and defense all intrigue NBA scouts. If he can show some offensive prowess as well, he could be a second-round pick.
  • There was a moment in time when USC big man Dewayne Dedmon was considered a potential NBA prospect. That time has probably passed. Dedmon has the size and athletic ability to be a pro. But he has no feel for the game. That’s always a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when you’re already 23 years old. Dedmon had 8 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks against Texas but was just 3-for-11 from the field.
  • Butler will face Illinois in the EA Sports Maui Invitational Final on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. North Carolina will play Chaminade in the consolation game at 7:30 p.m ET on ESPN2.

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