For many, seeing No. 13 Illinois included in the nation’s Top 15 wasn’t worth much more than a storyline.
First-year coach John Groce, inheriting a team from now-Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, had led the Illini to a 9-0 record coming into Saturday night’s match-up with Gonzaga. Problem was, the Zags had been beating an opponents by an average of nearly 25 points per game.
This “good story” couldn’t withstand that, especially on the road, right? Wrong.
Illinois guard Brandon Paul tallied 35 points on an efficient 10-of-16 shooting to lead all scorers in the Illini’s 85-74 win Saturday night in Spokane.
“I kept telling everybody, `This is it. We’ve got to take this right now,” Paul said after the game, recalling his team’s mindset at halftime. “We’re not playing well, but we’re still in this game.”
“A lot of people doubted us,” Paul said, as reported by the AP. “We came into the game as underdogs. We love that stuff.”
After a slow start and falling down 8-0 and eventually 12-3 in the opening minutes, Illinois dialed up the defensive pressure. Groce’s team would force 16 turnovers on the game and hold Gonzaga to 28 percent from behind the arc on its way to a win.
Much of the offensive attack centers around what Paul is able to do, complemented in the backcourt by Tracy Abrams (13 points) and D.J. Richardson (10 points), who were the other two Illini players in double figures.
But with everything centered around Paul, it raises a red flag. If he shoots poorly on any given night, is there enough around him to pick up the slack? The Illini might just answer as they go along.
Check out video highlights of the game here, courtesy of Illinois athletics.