Sophomore Brandon Paul electrifies Illini Opener Once Again

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Where was this Brandon Paul in February and March? For the second year in a row, Paul started the Illini season off with an impressive showing.

Last year against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Paul stole the spotlight of the season opener, draining 4 of 6 shots from behind the arc and finishing with 22 points – a freshman debut scoring record. Tuesday, opening the season against UC Irvine, he shot a career high 6 of 8 from three-point land. He finished the game with 18 points.

“Brandon, he’s pretty good in first games,” Bruce Weber joked in the post game press conference. “He’s continued that trend, and obviously he’s not going to shoot that well. But there’s no doubt he’s improved his three-point shooting from last year.”

Although Paul started out last season last year shooting lights out from three-point range, once the team started facing steeper competition and therefore tougher defenders, he relied too heavily on his outside shooting abilities, forcing shots that were often well defended. Weber, noticing Paul’s struggles, benched the freshman.

“We have to encourage him going to the basket and not settling down on threes,” Weber said. “If he’s got rhythm threes, and this is what I told him last year, shoot them. But if you don’t, I think he just relied on so many perimeter shots.”

It wasn’t until Paul started attacking the basket and using his acrobatic athleticism around the rim that he started seeing more ticks in important games.

Tuesday night against UC-Irvine, a team projected to finish middle of the pack in the Big West, Paul was lights out from three yet again but had no attempts from inside the arc.

“He’s got to through motions, through cutting and through ball screens, he’s got to get some other opportunities,” Weber said. “Hopefully he learned a lesson from last year also.”

But for all the knocks on Paul’s performance last year, he looked phenomenal Tuesday. All his three point attempts were uncontested and came as a result of excellent ball movement. They were open shots that were not forced, and he nailed them in electrifying fashion – three shots in a row within a minute and 15 seconds and two in a row in a 34 second span.

His performance brought back memories of the first few weeks into Paul’s freshman year, when he had all of Champaign buzzing about the new kid from Warren high school.

“It felt like déjà vu for me,” Paul said. “This year, the main thing for me is to stay consistent. I don’t want to have two good games and then lack off the next few games.”

Paul’s renewed sense of work ethic was evident Tuesday. He didn’t play like a tool in Demetri McCamey’s deep arsenal, but instead more like a facilitator in his own right. Although he only had two assists, one of them made Weber particularly happy. Off a shot fake Paul drove to the basket. When a defender stepped in front of him forcing what would have been an awkward shot, Paul dished the ball to Tyler Griffey for an easy layup in front of the basket.

“That right there showed a little bit of strides in maturity,” Weber said.

Defensively Paul added an electrifying block of UC-Irvine guard Daman Starring’s layup off of the glass. He also added two steals; contributing to the fantastic length that UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said killed his team in the first half.

I would bet Turner will remember Paul’s name for a long time.

“One guy shot us out of it by himself,” Turner said. “So that’s a credit to him.”

–Ethan Asofsky

Ethan Asofsky is a beat reporter for the Daily Illini. His profile can be seen here. He can be reached at easofsky@gmail.com

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