Brandon Paul, Trevor Mbakwe

Brandon Paul: “The coaches never gave up on us” this year

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The turnaround Illinois has made over the course of the last two weeks is one of the more shocking developments in a season where nothing should come as a surprise.

There’s a reason that I’ve dubbed this “The Year of WTF?!?”

The Illini won their first 12 games of the season — including big wins at Gonzaga and against Butler in the finals of the Maui Invitational — and looked to be a candidate to finish in the top four of the Big Ten after whooping up on Ohio State at home in the second game of the conference season.

And then the wheels fell off.

They were embarrassed against Minnesota at home. They were smacked around by Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. They lost by 14 points to Northwestern at home. But things started to look better near the end of January. Illinois hung with Michigan at home, gave Michigan State a scare in East Lansing (they were up 10 at halftime), and nearly picked off Wisconsin in Champaign. Finally, on February 7th, Illinois broke through, using a 13-2 run to close out an upset-win over No. 1 Indiana and following that up with a win at Minnesota and blowout victories over Purdue and Northwestern.

All of a sudden, the Illini team that we thought could make a run in the Big Ten two months ago is back.

What’s so surprising about that is we’ve become accustomed to Bruce Weber’s Illinois teams collapsing after a tough stretch. And after this group lost six of seven, it was easy to connect the dots — this wasn’t a coaching issue, this was a player personnel issue. This group just couldn’t handle success.

Well, we’ve been proven wrong.

Jon Greenberg of did a good job breaking down the change in the Illini over the past two weeks, and in the process churned out a couple of quotes that could be read as an indictment of Bruce Weber:

“The coaches never gave up on us,” senior guard Brandon Paul said. “They want to see us succeed. They said, we’ve had this rough stretch but gotta fight through it. No one on the team gave up on each other.”


“Don’t give in,” Paul said. “Don’t let what outsiders say affect us. I think that’s definitely been in our minds. A lot of people doubted us when we went through that rough stretch. [Groce’s] a guy with unbelievable energy. He comes in every day and he gives us the passion to want to compete and get better every day. That’s something you need in a coach.”


“It’s a whole different staff, whole different team, whole different attitude,” Richardson said. “Everything’s different. This team is no comparison to last year.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know the inner-workings of the relationships between Bruce Weber and his team last season. And even if Weber did give up on last year’s Illini team, that’s not an excuse for the players giving up as well.

But more than anything, what those quotes tell us is that Illinois got themselves a steal in John Groce.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Texas lands commitment from top 100 center

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James Banks announced on Thursday that he has committed to Texas, joining Jacob Young in Shaka Smart’s first recruiting class as the head coach of the Longhorns.

Banks is an interesting prospect. A 6-foot-10 center from Georgia, Banks is a still-developing prospect that was recruited more on his potential than his immediate ability.

“James Banks emerged as a good low post prospect this spring and summer,” NBC Recruiting Analyst Scott Phillips said. “With a good set of hands, some offensive potential and a frame that can add weight, Banks is a nice upside grab for Texas.”

He’s probably a few years away from having a major impact in the Big 12, but he may not have that much time to develop. Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Conner Lamert all graduate after this season, meaning that Banks is going to have to contribute immediately when he sets foot on the Austin campus for the 2016-17 season.

Texas has three commitments in the Class of 2015. Smart convinced Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis to remain committed to the program when he took over for Rick Barnes while he landed a commitment from Tevin Mack, who pledged to Smart when he was at VCU.

Memphis guard could miss season with shoulder injury

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Memphis just cannot catch a break.


It’s to the point where I almost feel bad for Josh Pastner.

Today, reported that Kedren Johnson, a 6-foot-4 point guard that was on track towards being an all-SEC point guard at Vanderbilt, could end up missing the season due to a shoulder injury. If he can handle the pain he can avoid surgery and play with the injury, but at the very least, Johnson is going to be less than his best.

Johnson averaged 6.7 points and 2.7 assists last season for the Tigers. He sat out 2013-14 after leaving Vanderbilt and entered last season incredibly out of shape. There was hope that he would be able to make a bigger impact this season and help fill the void at the point guard spot.

This news comes on the heels of Memphis finding out that Jaylen Fisher is heading to UNLV. Who’s Jaylen Fisher? Well, he’s a point guard and top 40 recruit from Memphis that was Pastner’s No. 1 recruiting target that opted to leave the city for his college hoops instead of play for the Tigers.

That’s a bad sign, but not quite as bad as Memphis losing star center Austin Nichols — another local kid — to a transfer over the summer. Nichols transferred to Virginia.