Brandon Paul led Illinois in scoring on the trip to Italy, averaging 13.9 points a game. He shot 48% from the field, led the team in steals with 14 and added 13 assists to go with just 9 turnovers. More importantly, he seemed to play his best under pressure.
"I think it was maybe a little bit expected for me to step up, by myself, my teammates and the coaches. My teammates got me the ball in crunch time or whenever I needed it.
"Knocking down shots did my confidence some good, but I didn't make as many shots as I wanted to. My shooting percentage wasn't as good as it should have been. I'll get back after it and get better in the gym."
There is a leadership void that Paul is beginning to fill. It is a new experience for him, but he may be ready to embrace it.
"I feel a lot more comfortable now. Some people might not see it, but I'm a little bit shy at times. The freshmen and the kids that didn't come in with me kind of look up to me. I know they will listen to what I have to say.
"Having that power is pretty good. You have to stay humble, but at the same time, you've got to know when to get things done."
The Illini defeated Fulgor Omegna 89-85 in overtime to conclude their trip. They never gave up in a game where everything went against them. Paul feels the confidence boost from that experience will carry over into the upcoming season.
"Definitely. The refs really tried to help the other team win. We just kept fighting; we never gave up. We got down 6 points real fast in overtime, but we kept pushing back and ended up winning."
It appears the Illini will be a blue collar team, winning with suffocating defense. Paul agrees.
"Yeah. We've got people who can get after it and guard. We have so many guards, we can rotate people in and out. If somebody's tired, we can go back in. Go full court and pressure guys. A lot of teams may not have as many ball handlers as in past years, so being able to pick up and create some turnovers will help our offense."
Head coach Bruce Weber used his entire bench throughout the games in Italy. Paul likes the idea of mass substitutions to keep up defensive pressure.
"Yeah, people substituting in and out, we're pretty deep. We're gonna have a lot of guys that are ready to play. They can come in and compete."
One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip was the play of sophomore Joe Bertrand, who was in Paul's recruiting class before an injury forced a redshirt season.
"He really stepped up for us. He played so well. It was a little bit surprising, but coming up with him, I knew it was in him. He just had to break out of his little shell, I guess. He played really well; he stepped up for us big-time. In a couple games, he led us in scoring.
"He had a setback freshman year when he hurt himself. He's gotten so much better since the first time he came in. He's one of my best friends. I didn't have to go through a surgery like that, so I know it's been tough for him.
"But he's a strong kid, and he's got a good attitude about things. Good things happen to good people. Things are looking up for him. He continues to get better."
Paul feels the off court experience was as beneficial as the games.
"It was real fun. It was a great experience. Off the court, we got a chance to build some team camaraderie. Walk around together, visit some of the shops, buy things just to barter with the guys. Getting to know other people's personalities, stuff like that."
A positive vibe appears to be building for the team.
"I can definitely feel it. Everybody hangs out with each other. We don't have any problems on or off the court. We got to see each other's personality. Some might be a little shy. Devin is pretty much the only one from out of state, and he's one of the funniest kids I've ever met. Hopefully he gets on the court sooner rather than later."
The Illini need the former Warren High School star to step up consistently during the 2011-12 season. If the Italian games are any indication, he may be ready for that role.