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updated: 11/6/2012 3:54 PM

Illini counting on Paul to lead the way

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  • Illinois guard Brandon Paul enters his senior season with a new head coach and several new teammates expected to play bigger roles. The former Warren star is one of four captains on the Illini.

      Illinois guard Brandon Paul enters his senior season with a new head coach and several new teammates expected to play bigger roles. The former Warren star is one of four captains on the Illini.
    Associated Press

  • @Caption credit"AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin ScholzIllinois coach John Groce gets excited as Illinois' Tyler Griffey scrambles for a ball with West Chester's Tim Flecken during an exhibition game on Sunday. The Illini open their nonconference slate on Friday.

      @Caption credit"AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin ScholzIllinois coach John Groce gets excited as Illinois' Tyler Griffey scrambles for a ball with West Chester's Tim Flecken during an exhibition game on Sunday. The Illini open their nonconference slate on Friday.

  • Illinois' Joseph Bertrand drives against West Chester's Corey Blake during their exhibition game Sunday in Champaign.

      Illinois' Joseph Bertrand drives against West Chester's Corey Blake during their exhibition game Sunday in Champaign.
    AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin Scholz

  • Associated Press

      Associated Press
    Illinois guard Brandon Paul is the only Big Ten pl

 
 

When it came time to find a new football coach, Illinois dipped into the Mid-American Conference and came up with Toledo's Tim Beckman.

Let's just say he's been somewhat less than a rousing hire, and the Fighting Illini football program is in rough shape. Maybe times change for the better on both fronts moving forward.

Taking it indoors, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas went back to the MAC for a new basketball coach. Ohio University's John Groce is in after Bruce Weber was ushered out following a 6-12 showing in the Big Ten last season (17-15 overall).

Groce, who took Ohio to the Sweet Sixteen last year and made the NCAA Tournament two times in four seasons with the Bobcats, has already made an impact.

"Coach is a great guy," said senior guard Brandon Paul. "He's taken the time to get to know everybody on a personal basis, not just from a basketball standpoint. That's something that's helped build relationships."

If Groce, 41, hopes to succeed in his debut season in Champaign -- and most projections have Illinois finishing near the bottom in the rugged Big Ten -- Paul needs to have a big year.

The former Warren High School star was the only player in the Big Ten to score 40-plus points in a game last season (43 in a Jan. 10 win over then fifth-ranked Ohio State), and Paul is back for his final year after averaging 14.7 points per game overall.

While he thought about following teammate Miles Leonard and declaring for the NBA draft, Paul instead will try getting the Illini back to a competitive level.

"I've worked on a lot of different things," Paul said. "I want to stay consistent, so I worked on my jumper a lot and my ballhandling skills."

Under Groce, look for Illinois to play at a much faster pace.

"It'll look a little different," Paul said. "We're looking to run up and down a lot more. Coach Groce plays at a certain pace with everything we do, and that's definitely going to transition to our offense."

Along with Paul, senior guard D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg last year) is going to be responsible for more scoring and added leadership.

"There is a lot of energy," Richardson said. "When (Groce) first got hired, you could feel the energy in the room. He's young. And the coaching staff is young as well. They've adjusted to us and we've adjusted to them.

"Now it's up to me and Brandon; we have to lead the team and show good leadership on the court."

Replacing Leonard in the middle is going to be a challenge, but Groce said Nnanna Egwu is ready for big minutes after playing sparingly as a freshman.

Egwu, a 6-foot-11, 245-pounder, averaged 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds per game last season.

"The guy who's stood out the most is Nnanna Egwu," Groce said when asked which player has surprised him in practice. "Nnanna made 20,000 shots on his own this summer, eight weeks of school. He's watching films, watching DVDs, you will see him early in the morning. Sometimes I will ask him if he wants the lights on. He is shooting in the dark. He loves the game and can't get enough of it."

Forward Sam McLaurin, a graduate transfer from Coastal Carolina, should provide some needed muscle and scoring inside, and Groce is also expecting good things from Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry and Mike Shaw in the frontcourt.

Paul and Richardson are mainstays in the backcourt, but keep an eye on freshman guard Mike LaTulip, the 6-foot walk-on who is Prospect High School's all-time leading scorer.

Groce figures to grow on the job, but he couldn't be happier with the present state of affairs.

"The biggest thing thus far is our players have been terrific from their effort and attitude," Groce said. "They're excited. It's been maybe as fun as anytime I've been in coaching to go to practice. They're excited to be there, they're passionate, they want to learn. They have exceeded my expectations in that regard.

"I feel like we're getting better every day. We have a long way to go, but we're going to keep working at it and let the chips fall."

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