WIth sophomore Brandon Paul improving as a backup point guard, the Illini take some of the pressure off senior Demetri McCamey. It also allows coach Bruce Weber to juggle the lineup, if needed.
Point guard wasn't in the plans Brandon Paul when he began his Illinois basketball career.
The Mr. Basketball in Illinois winner as a senior at Gurnee Warren High School, Paul showed up on campus as an athletic freak, then scored 42 points combined in first two games. But as he continued to develop into the backup point guard in his second season with the Illini, Paul saw the future before the Illini host No. 14 Purdue in a key Big Ten Conference game Sunday.
"When I come back next year, I want to be a point guard,'' Paul said.
The long-range plan would benefit the Illini, who lose senior Demetri McCamey after the season and add Chicago Mount Carmel senior guard Tracy Abrams as a point guard prospect. Handing the program over to a freshman point guard is a nervous proposition, so the Illini would like more options.
In the short term, the Illini also gain from the improvement of Paul heading into the biggest hurdle between the Illini and the NCAA Tournament. A sweep of the final four home games would leave the Illini with no worse than a 10-8 conference record and comfortable spot on Selection Sunday.
The nagging pressure from Purdue's physical defense wears a guy down, and the Illini would prefer to take some of the duties off the shoulders of McCamey. In the 71-62 win at Minnesota Thursday, Paul started at point guard when coach Bruce Weber juggled the lineup.
Paul and sophomore D.J. Richardson also handled the ball against the Minnesota press in the second half, allowing McCamey to rest while battling cramps.
"Brandon's done better and better,'' Weber said. "We can release some of the pressure on Demetri. We're not afraid now when Brandon brings the ball up the court now.''
Paul still likes to score. He averaged 12.3 points over the last seven games after suffering through a eight-game slump while averaging 4.9 points. Playing more minutes at the point, Paul also had 10 assists over the last three games after getting nine in the previous eight. In the process, Paul's career plans have changed.
"I wasn't ever really ready, wasn't thinking about becoming a point guard (coming out of high school),'' said Paul. "Now that's something I'm looking forward to in the future.
"It's got to be my game. If I want to make it to the next level, I have to handle the ball. I will dedicate my summer and offseason.''
The slasher still has plenty to learn, Weber said.
"When you're a point guard, you have to realize you're running the show, and you're getting the team into the offense,'' Weber said. "You're not looking for your shot. That's the second or third option. We've talked to him about it. It's a whole different mindset in there with Demetri (with Paul as a shooting guard). It's a different mindset when he goes from one position to the next.''
McCamey can't do it all by himself.
"Last year in one game he had 28 points against us and the other game he had 16 assists against us," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "He's a weapon, because he can beat you with his passing and he can beat you with his dribble.''
Nevertheless, Illinois lost both of those games to Purdue. Reducing McCamey's responsibilities (and minutes) could be addition by subtraction.
"With what he has to do for his team to be successful, Demetri's workload is as heavy as anyone in the country,'' said ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo, the former Illini guard.
Former Decatur Eisenhower star Lewis Jackson, a Purdue junior, bothers teams with his quickness on offense and pressure defense. That's a challenge for Paul, but the Illini have noticed his improvement.
"Brandon is growing into the point guard role,'' said senior Bill Cole. "As a team, we're getting more and more confident when (McCamey) has to come out. It's not a panic mode any more.''
A ballhawk on defense, Paul leads the Matto with 126 points and will share some defensive duties, he said, on Purdue senior E'Twaun Moore, who averaged 15 points in his first eight games against the Illini.
Weber decided on a lineup change one day before the Minnesota game, he said, but Weber wasn't dropping any hints about the starting lineup for Sunday. Illinois ended a four-game Big Ten road losing streak with the victory at Minnesota following the starting lineup change.
Purdue is the biggest challenge left on the home schedule. Revitalized Michigan comes to town Wednesday, and the Illini finish the home season by hosting Iowa and Indiana. A loss to Purdue to nullify gains made with the win over the Gophers.
"It's going to be one of the biggest games in the season,'' Cole said. "It could be the turning point in the season if we put a streak together.
"We came together and did a lot of good things (at Minnesota). Now it's about being mature and carrying it onto this game.''No. 14 Purdue (19-5, 8-3) at Illinois (16-8, 6-5) noon, Assembly Hall (16,618), Champaign (CBS, Illini Sports Network) ILLINOIS (16-8, 6-5) ppg rpg F Mike Davis Sr. 6-9 11.5 6.8 F Jereme Richmond Fr. 6-7 8.0 5.3 C Mike Tisdale Sr. 7-1 9.4 6.6 G D.J. Richardson So. 6-3 9.5 1.9 G Demetri McCamey Sr. 6-3 14.8 3.3 PURDUE (19-5, 8-3) F D.J. Byrd So. 6-5 5.0 2.7 C JaJuan Johnson Sr. 6-10 20.6 7.6 G Ryne Smith Jr. 6-3 6.5 1.9 G Lewis Jackson Jr. 5-9 7.0 3.2 G E'Twaun Moore Sr. 6-4 17.8 5.6 Noteworthy: Purdue won two of the last three games between the two teams in Assembly Hall. Overall, the Boilers have won six of the last nine games against the Illini. Last season, the Boilermakers scored 84 points in the Hall, the most given up by the Illini on their home court. Not listed in the scorebook, Purdue guard John Hart was the game's big surprise in the 84-78 win over Illinois. The deep reserve scored 14 points. . . Purdue opened the second half with a 15-4 run. . . A win would tie Moore and Johnson for the most victories in Purdue history with 101. Johnson had 24 points and 12 rebounds in the victory here last season. . . No team has shot better than 50 percent against the Illini this season. . . Key for Illini: Play as hard against the Boilers as they did against Minnesota. Key for Boilermakers: Win the game with defense. Key quote: "(Illinois) is notorius for beging content with one win. If we could get a couple in a row, it would be big.'' -- Illinois center Mike Tisdale. Betting line: Prediction: Illinois 64, Purdue 63