Brandon Paul has shown sparks of stardom for two years now. He exploded on the season during nonconference games as a freshman, hitting numerous three pointers and scoring 20+ points two consecutive games. But he hasn't always played at that level. He was the fourth leading scorer last year with a 9 point average.
Now, he is looked upon as a go-to guy for the Illinois basketball team. Is he ready to accept that responsibility?
"That's definitely a role I've taken on this year. In high school I was a scoring star, but in college everything kind of evens out. That's one area where I've polished my game, as well as being a defensive player.
"The guys look up to me, and when they need a point they're gonna try to get me the ball. I want to definitely capitalize on that and boost my teammates.
"I've done a lot to better myself and my teammates. Just being around them helps me get better. Throughout the summer, I definitely focused on getting better every day. I didn't take any days off, and I think that's really paid off."
He and fellow junior D.J. Richardson have the most experience playing with the Illini, and they realize a need to become leaders this year to replace the seniors.
"I think we're doing a good job with that. Obviously, they were a big help to us last year, but we've got to focus on this year and see what we can bring to the table. I think the younger guys kind of look up to us, so we've got to keep leading by example and being vocal leaders on the court. I think that's gonna take us to the next level."
It appears they will get a big boost from senior Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, who is new to Illinois but has the most college experience. He is a natural leader who will likely do more and more as his comfort level improves with his new teammates.
"I think he brings leadership. He's a great player and has so much fight in him. We had a chance to play Bradley a couple years back, and he fought hard against us. Other guys look up to him."
Illini head coach Bruce Weber is sincere in wanting a pressing, fast break team this year. Paul is excited about the possibilities, especially after seeing how well it worked on the summer tour of Italy.
"I like it a lot. We have a lot of defensive-minded guys this year. It's going to be exciting. We get after it. In Italy, we got a chance to see a little of what we can be this year. I think we can continue to get better and grow. It's gonna be good for us."
The Illini will need help from six freshmen. None will be starters to begin the season, but they provide athleticism and the depth to press full court and fill required roles. Their early play has been encouraging for Paul.
"I think they've been great. The guys are really buying into the system. We don't have guys that talk back. They're willing to learn, and that's the best thing. I know the coaches love that about them. They're all so raw, but they can get so much better. It's really exciting for us."
Paul was asked the main difference between last year's Illini team and the 2011-12 edition.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from last year's team, but a lot of the guys are willing to go out and guard full court. We did a bunch of that in Italy. It was fun to see guys get after it and show a lot of fight. The freshmen came in and played so much harder, it puts more fight in myself."
Paul isn't promising championships at this point. He realizes a young group needs time to evolve into a consistent fighting unit. But he believes the team will be better in March than in November.
"We're definitely gonna take it one day at a time. We've done really well during conditioning/weights and workouts. I feel like we can compete in the Big 10. I can't guarantee we'll win every game, but I guarantee we'll go out and compete. It's a growing experience. Every day we're getting better and listening to the coaches."