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Illinois basketball buys into John Groce’s system fast

After shooting 37.6 percent his first three years BrandPaul is shooting 48.3 percent this year. He’s averaging 18.7 points per

After shooting 37.6 percent his first three years, Brandon Paul is shooting 48.3 percent this year. He’s averaging 18.7 points per game. | AP

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ACC/Big Ten



Minnesota 77, at Florida State 68

At Virginia Tech 95, Iowa 79

At Michigan 79, N.C. State 72

Maryland 77, at Northwestern 57

Nebraska 79, at Wake Forest 63

At Indiana 83, North Carolina 59


Virginia at Wisconsin, 6, ESPN2

Purdue at Clemson, 6:15, ESPNU

Michigan St. at Miami, 6:30, ESPN

Georgia Tech at Illinois, 8, ESPN2

Boston College at Penn State, 8:15, ESPNU

Ohio State at Duke, 8:30, ESPN

Updated: December 29, 2012 6:27AM

About 27 minutes after he was hired last spring, John Groce started talking about how impressed he was with the way a beleaguered Illinois team was buying in.

Coaches often say stuff like that. In this case, it happened to be true.

That’s a big reason why the Illini, a popular pick to finish ninth in the Big Ten, are ranked 22nd in the nation as they prepare for Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday.

The leader of that buy-in might be Groce’s best player, Brandon Paul, who’s off to a great start. The 6-4 senior from Gurnee entered Tuesday second in the Big Ten in scoring with 18.7 points per game. He also won the Maui Invitational MVP award.

‘‘The best thing about Brandon Paul is he’s allowed us to coach him at a high level,’’ Groce said. ‘‘On Monday, I was on him in film session. On him. That sends a message to the other guys, like, ‘Whoa! Everybody’s held accountable around here.’ He handles coaching really well. That’s allowed him to get better and helped our team improve.’’

That said, the 7-0 Illini know November accolades need to be treated like fool’s gold.

‘‘It’s nothing but a number,’’ Groce said of Illinois’ Top 25 ranking. ‘‘We’re seven games in. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the recognition. But at the end of the day, what’s it mean in terms of the long-term mission we’re on to be the best team we can be in February and March?’’

It’s an early indication, at least, that Illinois has a chance to turn its NCAA tournament dream into reality.

It’s also an indication that, for all the concerns about ballhandling and front-court depth, Illinois won’t be a pushover in the rugged Big Ten.

A big reason why Paul and his teammates have bought in is they really like Groce’s attacking, dribble-drive offense. They feel comfortable in it, and that is helping them make shots.

A 37.6 percent shooter his first three years, Paul is shooting 48.3 percent this year. He’s also 10th in the Big Ten with 3.7 assists per game, nearly double his 2.1 assists his first three years.

Another big beneficiary is 6-9 senior Tyler Griffey, who’s averaging 10.9 points per game after being a 3.3-point afterthought his first three years.

‘‘This system’s been great for us,’’ said Paul, an off guard who also spells Tracy Abrams at the point. ‘‘The type of players we have works well with this style of play.’’

Groce wants the Illini, especially Paul, to put the ball on the floor and make decisions coming off screens. That could mean anything from a classic pick-and-roll with Egwu Nnanna going to the basket or a pass to a wide-open Griffey in the corner.

‘‘Brandon’s been great about making the right decision,’’ said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, who’s also a Big Ten Network analyst. ‘‘He’s such a powerful player for a guard. When he comes off the screen, he’s got momentum. With his natural strength, it’s not easy for a defense to stop him from making a play.’’

There’s another big plus about Groce’s offense, one that ought to help him continue to bring in recruiting classes as promising as the five-player group he introduced this month.

The pick-and-roll stuff Groce favors, DeCourcy said, ‘‘is the foundation for almost everything that happens in the NBA right now.’’

The new staff has pushed hard, Griffey said, but it also ‘‘has given us positive encouragement — the confidence to excel, and everyone’s meshing together. We all like [the new offense]. Who doesn’t want to get up and down and put shots up?’’

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