CHICAGO – As soon as Illinois guard Brandon Paul dribbled, stepped back and released a 15-foot shot from near the left elbow, teammate D.J. Richardson knew.
Basket. Buzzer. Ballgame.
“I’ve seen that look in his eye,” Richardson said.
It’s a senior thing.
These are some of the most wonderful days of the year to be a college basketball fan. For proof, look no further than Illinois’ thrilling 51-49 win against Minnesota on Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.
The Fighting Illini (22-11) probably would have earned a spot in the NCAA tournament anyway, but Paul’s game-winning shot as time expired certainly helped. As the conference’s No. 8 seed, Illinois advanced to play No. 1 seed Indiana (26-5) in today’s quarterfinals at the United Center.
Caution: The contest could be low scoring, physical and ugly as a pig. It could be more of a tractor pull than a beauty pageant, as Big Ten games tend to be.
And it could be so much fun.
That’s how it was on the first day of the Big Ten tournament as Illinois and Minnesota combined to miss 62 of 96 shots from the field. At certain times, it seemed as if nobody was going to make a basket without a 10-foot ladder in front of the rim.
Nobody except for Paul, that is.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior from Warren High School in Gurnee served as a mobile hotspot on a day when nobody else could connect. He made 10 of Illinois’ 18 field goals and finished with 25 points while all of his teammates combined for 26.
As the clock ticked down – 3, 2, 1… – Paul calmly attacked from the key and drained his game-winner past the outstretched arm of Minnesota guard Austin Hollins.
“I didn’t want to lose,” Paul said. “We worked too hard.”
That goes for all of the Fighting Illini seniors.
When Paul, Richardson and Tyler Griffey arrived as freshman in the fall of 2009, expectations were high for Illinois basketball. Four-plus years had passed since Bruce Weber guided the team to the NCAA title game, but the new recruits were strong and would be joined the next season by blue-chip prospect Jereme Richmond.
Clearly, things didn’t go as planned.
During the next three seasons, the Fighting Illini went 58-44 overall and 25-29 in the Big Ten. They advanced the NCAA tournament once and won one game there. Richmond was a dud, and shortly after last season, Weber was history.
In came John Groce, who restored some life to the program. Illinois showed its potential with wins against highly ranked schools such as Gonzaga, Indiana and Butler, but it maddened fans with bad losses against Purdue and Northwestern.
Now comes the harsh reality for the Illinois seniors.
Their college careers will be finished soon. Maybe they have two games remaining, maybe three, maybe four – it all depends on how much they win.
Richardson isn’t ready to hang up his No. 1 jersey quite yet.
“We know this is our last strike,” Richardson said. “This is our last Big Ten tournament. This is it. We’ve got to go out fighting. We can’t have any regrets.”
It’s a philosophy that Groce appreciates.
He might be new to Illinois, but he knows full well that his seniors have endured a bumpy ride. He thought it was appropriate that Richardson and Paul came through in the final minute, which secured the 136th game of their college careers today.
“I’m happy for those guys,” Groce said. “They have been through an awful lot.
“And I’m really proud of their resilience. I said that as soon as [the regular season] ended. They’re aware that some people had written them off. I think that put a chip on their shoulder. It does, if you’re a competitor.”
They’re competitors, all right.
And they still are competing.
“We’ve got Indiana next, and we have a mindset that this is it for us,” Paul said. “Especially for our seniors, we’ve got to play. Go out with a bang.”
It’s a senior thing.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.