Illinois coach Bruce Weber started Brandon Paul early in the season, but the team began to play better when Bill Cole took on the starting role. Weber is still looking for ways to magnify each player's strengths to benefit the team.
"Brandon does things that Bill doesn't, and Bill does things that Brandon doesn't. It would be great if both of them could be playing and doing what they can do at the same time."
Paul, a 6'-4" freshman, was an early season sensation. He scored 22 and 20 points in his first two games, and people were discussing an early NBA exit. But he found the going rougher when better opponents defended him better. He began forcing shots with too much emphasis on threes, and he stopped doing all the other things he can do well.
Seeking stability, teamwork and maturity in the lineup, Weber exchanged Paul with 6'-9" junior Cole. Finding his niche after two frustrating seasons on the bench, Cole used high-energy tactics to dive for loose balls, keep rebounds alive, and be a disruptive defensive influence. He also emerged as a team leader.
Unfortunately, Cole has become as reluctant to put up shots as Paul is eager. He needs to wind up on his shot, and his release point is low, so he needs time and space to operate. If he isn't set up for an open shot, he doesn't get one. This makes it easier for opponents to slough off him to defend his more potent teammates.
Cole is extremely slender and not physically strong. He wears out with all the energy exertion. Weber realizes the dilemma Cole faces.
"I think Billy, just because of his body and the number of minutes we've played him, he's worn down. He even told me the second game of the week he has more trouble than the first. I think we might have played him close to 30 minutes at Iowa.
"We had talked about cutting him down, and we end up pushing up the minutes. He just didn't have the energy or bounce against Michigan State, and they're very athletic and physical.
"Against Michigan State, I think he played about 27 minutes. And then he came right back and played against Wisconsin. And maybe he lost a little confidence also.
"If he's not a threat, then people can cheat off him. He's still doing the things he's done all year to help us, but it would be nice if he could knock down a couple shots. It definitely spreads the defense. And I think it's good for his confidence."
Paul has explosiveness and overall strength and talent that Cole lacks. But he makes freshman mistakes, forcing shots and not letting the game come to him. He wants to perform well and grows impatient when it doesn't happen. It can become a vicious cycle.
"I'm sure he was frustrated," Weber admits. "He doesn't outwardly have emotional highs and lows. So I don't think he visually showed the frustration, but I think he did it with his play in trying to do too much. That was the main thing I tried to emphasize to him.
"You've got to learn how to play, how to get open, when to shoot a shot. And you've got to accept the coaching part of it too. The other thing I've emphasized is we need him if we're gonna be successful because he can do so many things.
"But he's also got to learn how to play hard all the time. He has a tendency to float sometimes. I think he's really listened and bought in. If you go back to the Indiana game, he struggled a little bit. But at the end of the game, that kid had the most energy.
"After Demetri (McCamey) made the basket, he was running around chest-bumping everybody. He was doing handstands in the locker room. So he has kept a great attitude, and I think that is part of his success. Like I've been telling him, if you have a positive attitude good things will happen to you."
Paul can hit threes when he is in balance with both feet facing the basket. But he can do so much more. So far, his other option has been to penetrate all the way to the basket like a runaway locomotive. He gets called for charges or throws up wild, offbalance shots that have little hope of success.
He could jump over many defenders and hit a variety of short shots without that extreme. But he tends to panic and get into compromising positions where he can neither get off a quality shot nor get fouled.
He did begin to practice penetrating from the arc and then pulling up for a 17 foot jumper, but he tends to forget that option is available to him. When he becomes a triple threat and knows when to do what, he will be tough for anyone to defend.
Weber knows he has a special athlete on his hands, but he must find a way to harness the ability.
"Brandon brings athleticism. I really emphasized to him, we all want to make shots and big plays, but he can really help our team by doing the other things. He was doing those other things early in the season, the play-hard chart, the putbacks, steals, taking charges.
"I think he still might be our leader in taking charges, and he's only taken one or two in the Big 10. It shows how bad the other guys are with taking charges."
Paul was Mr. Basketball in Illinois last year. His overall potential is higher than Cole. Weber certainly wants to tap all those skills, if Paul can just find a way to put everything together.
"The other intangible thing, Brandon can handle the ball, he's got good vision, and he can create a little bit. When he's in there, that's probably the real big difference between him and Billy. He relieves the stress on Demetri because he's got to do so much."
Paul scored 13 at Purdue, but 7 of his 10 shots were threes. He made three of them, but ultimately he is too inconsistent from the arc at this time to rely upon that part of his game.
It is likely he will undergo a transformation in the offseason, thinking back to the highs and lows and recognizing what he needs to improve. Eventually, he could still take his game to another level and become a star for the Illini.
But right now, he must share time with Cole. The Illini need Cole's leadership on the floor, and his all-out hustle helps keep them all going. Weber is still contemplating a change in the starting lineup, but that is not yet ready to happen.
"We've talked about it. Billy does so much for us. Right now we'll probably leave it. It could change in the next couple weeks. Brandon does bring high energy. And he's got a great attitude.
"We've talked to him a lot, not only myself but the assistants. I think some of the other players too have talked to him and made him understand we're not against him. We're trying to help him.
"I think he's been very good at practice, and he's trying to do what we ask. It's not who starts. Brandon was in at the end of the game because he was playing well. That's the most important time."