On sheer athleticism alone, Illinois has more talent at guard this year than last. Three talented newcomers all have a chance to compete for starting roles in the backcourt. But they lack the experience and maturity of the graduated Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham.
One of those rookies is former Warren star Brandon Paul. The 6'-3" guard was among the top players in the state last year and brings considerable talent to the Illini team. But college ball is a big step for any freshman. Paul was surprised but pleased with the intensity of the small group workouts with Illini coaches this fall.
"It is a pretty tough workout, I'm still getting adapted. But It's real fun, it's the Big 10 now, so I love every second."
Coach Bruce Weber runs a motion offense, which requires constant movement. There is a major difference from high school ball.
"We're just always moving. With the motion offense, you can't get tired and sit one out. You've got to get into as good a condition as you can."
Paul has long arms, a slender but strong body and tremendous leaping ability. He can drive to the hoop for a resounding dunk and hit the three point shot. He can hold his own on talent with Illini upperclassmen. But he is not yet accustomed to all the running.
"Conditioning is the biggest thing so far because in high school, you ran but not as much as college basketball, especially in the Big 10."
Has the thought of starting started to creep into his thinking?
"Maybe a little bit. It's everyone's idea to start, but I just want to be as mentally alert as I can, whether it's coming off the bench or starting."
Paul and his fellow freshmen became acquainted with their teammates over the summer, and they had a chance to get ahead in their school requirements and begin to understand the hard work required for college and basketball. But it was nothing compared to the fall semester.
"Yeah, it's definitely a lot different than summer. You only had two classes in the summer. Now, we've got a full schedule. We've got to do homework first, and then we've got to get out on the court. I love school. I don't love the work as much, but it's just fun being out here."
A good student, Paul shared his fall class schedule.
"I'm taking Geology, I'm taking a communications class, a couple RST's (Recreation, Sports and Tourism), and I have a weather class that's interesting. I'm thinking about RST as my major, it's something I'm into right now."
The 6'-3", 190 pounder really enjoyed having former Illini great Deron Williams play with the team recently. It was a reminder of why he first fell in love with the University of Illinois.
"It was real fun. I watched him when they went to the tournament championship, and that's pretty much when I decided I wanted to come here. It's really a blessing to see a great player come back and play with us."
Paul also learned from Williams.
"I watch his game. He plays hard, and he tries to teach us little things as we're going."
There may be some homesickness at times, but Paul is far from alone. He has a number of friends on campus. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the notoriety afforded by being a basketball star.
"Definitely, a lot of people come up to me as I'm walking around. I've got a lot of friends from school and the neighboring schools around me."
Paul is still feeling his way and has much to learn. But he has the talent, intelligence and motivation to be a big help this year and in future years.