Game Notes: SIUE at Illinois
Here comes Brandon Paul!
by Quinn Peterson
A day after Jay-Z and N.E.R.D. rocked the stage, Assembly Hall was still the place to be for excitement. This time the spaz was for over the start of the regular season for Illinois men’s basketball, as the Illini defeated the SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, 96-69.
Friday marked the beginning of a new era for Illinois.
You know that recruiting drought that’s plagued the Illini over the past few years? Gone.
Expectations were high for Illinois’ class of recruits this year, as it is without question the best group of diaper dandies to set foot in Champaign thus far in the Bruce Weber-era. (Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head were all brought in by Bill Self.) Highlighted by highly touted guards Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Joseph Bertrand, the trio will look to revive the energy in Champaign to levels of ’89 and ’05.
And in Friday’s season opener, they didn’t disappoint. Though Bertrand was out with an injury, Richardson and Paul wasted no time etching their names in the history books, becoming the first freshman to start in an Illini season opener under Bruce Weber since Brian Randle in 2003. They put themselves in even better company as it was the first time more than one freshmen started for Illinois since Brown, Williams and James Augustine in 2002. It was that group that would make it all the way to the Big Dance just three years later.
“We took a lot of pressure on us, but we just wanted to come out and play hard. Show that we’re two freshman that work hard, get on the court, and compete,” said Paul on the play of him and Richardson.
Continuing with the record book theme, Paul set the new mark for points by a freshman in a season opener as he finished with 22 to lead Illinois in scoring, topping Deon Thomas’ 19-year-old record of 21. Paul looked awesome from the moment the ref threw up the jump ball. He came out blazing, starting 4-4 from the field, 3-3 from downtown, scoring Illinois’ first bucket of the game and 8 of their first 12 points. Official. He would receive a well-deserved round of applause as he left he game late in the second half.
“He played great, you know. He played up to his potential. Sometimes he lollygags a little bit out there, but today he played hard for all of his minutes. He rebounded, he passed the ball, he shot the ball well, he did everything well. We’re gonna need him this year in the Big Ten,” said junior forward Mike Davis.
“It was the debut, first game, so I had a few butterflies. But after the first couple plays, we just went after it. All of the butterflies came out, and I just had a lot of confidence,” added Paul.
His defense was on point, as well.
“I thought even just as impressive [as his scoring], we had him start on [Mark] Yelovich. And he did a nice job of not letting him get going. Going into it it looks like he’s their best player, and he really did a good job,” said Weber. “One thing we’re gonna have to find is a defensive stopper. He has length, he has athletic ability. If he can just get some good fundamentals defensively, he can be that kind of player.”
Richardson wasn’t quite as spectacular, but he had a strong debut, as well, finishing with 14 points on 3-5 and 8-10 from the line, to go along with 4 assists. He was slowed up a bit by an elbow he hyperextended in practice the day before.
“You see my shot percentage went down from last game. I attempted more last game”, he said joking after the game. “I was ready to get my teammates open shots, and just do a different role for tonight,” he continued.
Not to be too far outdone, the upperclassmen played solid games, too.
“We still gotta have the leadership, gotta have the production from our older guys,” said Weber, cautious not to put too much on the shoulders of his new batch of recruits.
Junior bigs Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale had strong nights, each going 4-5. While Davis notched the 10th double-double of his career, going for 10 and 10, Tisdale had a modest 8 and 6. Domique Keller added 9 of his own. Even walk-on senior Bubba Chisolm got some burn, much to the crowd’s enjoyment. His 15-foot jumper with 2 minutes to go sparked the strongest crowd reaction of the night.
Junior guard Demetri McCamey also had 11 to go along with his 7 assists. He looked good all night, constantly putting pressure on the Cougars by way of on-ball defense or pushing it up the floor to get Illinois easy buckets.
“Whenever we made shots, McCamey was right down our throat again. And they had some easy baskets with that”, said SIU-E coach Lennox Forrester.
The Illini shot a scorching 55 percent on the night. Not done with the record books quite yet, Illinois’ 96 points was its highest point total since 2002, and the second-highest point total ever since Weber’s been at the helm.
“Today, the whole thing was energy, excitement, and get off to a good early start. And we did that,” said Weber.
Not only are Illinois’ recruiting struggles over, but their scoring woe’s are too, as they look to be well past the days of failing to crack 40 points which was, at times, the case last season.
With one game down, and at least 30 to go, the Illini aren’t getting too ahead of themselves after just one game, but it’s safe to say a new day has arrived in Illinois, as they look to make record book talk a normality, and mot just a one time thing.