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Illinois basketball’s Brandon Paul is doing more than scoring

Illinois' BrandPaul (3) steals ball front Indiana's Remy Abell (23) during first half an NCAA college basketball game Assembly Hall

Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) steals the ball in front of Indiana's Remy Abell (23) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/John Dixon) ORG XMIT: ILJD102

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:41AM

Brandon Paul needs one more point to become the 10th player in Illinois history to score 1,500 points.

It’s safe to say he’ll reach that milestone against Penn State on Thursday night (7:15, BTN, 560-AM).

It’s also safe to say that if he doesn’t and the Illini win, the young man best known for lighting up Ohio State for 43 last year and Gonzaga for 35 this year won’t mind at all.

“We’re playing as a unit and it’s really showing,’’ said Paul, content to let teammates, such as D.J. Richardson, do the scoring. “D.J’s playing amazing, playing with a chip on his shoulder. That’s what we need him to do.’’

Coming off a foul-riddled three-point game vs. Purdue, Paul had eight points at Northwestern. Eleven points in two games would not seem to be a good thing for a player who’s still fourth in Big Ten scoring, with 16.4 points a game.

As far as coach John Groce is concerned, Paul didn’t have a good game at NU. He had a great game that included six rebounds, five assists, a block, a steal and big-time defense.

“He was tremendous,’’ Groce said. “I could make a case that it was the best all-around game he’s played all year. He’s a gifted scorer. Obviously, there will be games where he scores. But we’re a much better team when he’s locked in in all areas.’’

Meanwhile, if Illinois had to choose an MVP at this point, it would be Richardson, who’s averaging 18 points during Illinois’ four-game winning streak and playing exceptional defense.

“It’s my last year,’’ Richardson said. “I’m trying to go out the best way, have no regrets. I’m just playing basketball and having fun. People say a lot about me. I really don’t care.’’

Skeptics can’t be saying anything negative now. Once considered a player who needed to be more assertive — especially about going to the basket — Richardson’s doing just about everything well.

“He’s playing at a really high level at both ends,’’ said Groce, more excited about Richardson’s defense than his 18 points and eight rebounds against NU.

“I don’t think people understand how good he is on defense. He’s unbelievable. He’s in the right position, he knows when to help. He knows how to guard about everything you throw at him.’’

Beyond Paul and Richardson, the list of Illini who are at the top of their game, ­especially on defense, could go on and on.

It adds up to an Illinois that’s tracking for a No. 6 or 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and has a chance to move up with continued success, if it keeps buying in and digging in on defense.

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