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Illinois men’s basketball still perfect and still looking for big season

Illinois’ BrandPaul coming off 35-point game against Gonzagis averaging 19.5 points. | Heather Coit~AP

Illinois’ Brandon Paul, coming off a 35-point game against Gonzaga, is averaging 19.5 points. | Heather Coit~AP

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Updated: December 10, 2012 4:36PM



No. 13 Illinois will find out Monday whether it cracks the top 10 for the first time since Dee Brown was wearing orange in 2005-06, or if it’s still knocking on the door.

What it knows after an impressive 85-74 victory Saturday at No. 10 Gonzaga is that it’s knocking on the door for a very good season if it keeps doing what it has been doing during its 10-0 start.

‘‘I’m ecstatic we won,’’ said Brandon Paul, who had an All-America-caliber 35 points. ‘‘A lot of people doubted us. We love that. We fought as a team. It’s a great win. Now we have to move on to the next one.’’

The next one will be Tuesday against Norfolk State (7 p.m., ESPN3.com, 560-AM). The Spartans (5-5) won’t move the needle, but new coach John Groce, who wasn’t happy with a lackluster effort against Western Carolina last week, wants more consistency from his overachieving Illini.

‘‘We have the capability to be a really good team,’’ Groce said. ‘‘But we have to be consistent. Against Western Carolina, we weren’t very good. Let’s see how humble we are Tuesday.’’

That game was tied at 54 with less than six minutes to play. An unhappy Groce ripped his trousers while coaching frantically during the game — and tore into his players at halftime.

‘‘He pretty much ripped us a new one,’’ Paul said. ‘‘It got us thinking. We haven’t done anything yet. We still haven’t done anything. We have to continue to build and get better.’’

Not many people saw Illinois winning its first 10 games. And the Illini, who survived major frontcourt foul problems at Gonzaga, still face uncertainty against muscular Big Ten teams.

But Groce thought he had some pieces in place — an exceptional talent in Paul, a mature core around Paul and enough determination and depth to be competitive.

‘‘I thought we were capable of playing good basketball against anybody,’’ said Groce, especially pleased that his team wasn’t rattled when Gonzaga jumped out to 12-3 and 31-20 leads. ‘‘The thing they showed me, and I can’t emphasize this enough, at the beginning of the game when we got stung, they didn’t flinch. They just kept playing.’’

Paul’s 35-point game is the second-best of his career, topped only by the 43 he scored against Ohio State last Jan. 10. It boosts his average to 19.5 points, topped in the Big Ten only by Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas (21 ppg).

‘‘He looked like a high-level NBA guy,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ‘‘We didn’t have a guy who could guard him one-on-one.’’

Groce liked the way Paul got the 35. He shot 10-for-16, including 5-for-9 on threes, and was 10-for-11 from the foul line, with three assists, three steals and two turnovers.

‘‘He’s in attack mode,’’ Groce said. ‘‘He’s learning how to make guys better and balance it. He made really good decisions [against Gonzaga]. He drove the ball. Last year, maybe he’d get a little jump shot-happy. Now he’s mixing in some mid-range, driving in, getting to the foul line.’’



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