Paul leads Illinois past Zags

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Brandon Paul scored 35 points to lead #13 Illinois to an upset win on the road over #10 Gonzaga in an early season battle of unbeaten teams by an 85-74 score. Illinois is now 10-0 and made statement on the national stage in a game that most expected them to lose. Tracy Abrams added 14 and DJ Richardson 11 to offset the Gonzaga big man advantage and pull the upset.
The Zags (9-1) got out early and hit 11 of their first 12 shots to take an 11 point first half lead, but the Illini behind their guard were able to slow the Gonzaga big men just enough to allow their advantage on the perimeter to take over and get the win.
Here's the review from Orange and Blue News.
Three observations
1. Bouncing back - The Paquaio-Marquez fight was similar on Saturday night, as Marquez took an early beating before knocking the Pac-Man out cold. Illinois did the same, falling behind by 11 points early, before winning by double digits. On the road. Against a top 10 team. The key once again was the Illinois offense, which continues to look like a winner to me.
2. A step slow - The Zags came out with a lot of energy, but the reality is that they could not guard Abrams, Paul, Richardson and Bertrand off the bounce. Last year they couldn't chase them off the screens, and this year they were even more effective in getting open with the dribble. The other issue for the Zags was that they couldn't handle the length of the Illinois wings and guards and get the ball inside to their bigs, where they had a huge advantage.
3. Efficient without the threes - 19-34 from 2 point range, 14-17 from the line, just 11 turnovers and 11 offensive rebounds mean that Illinois will have an efficient night on offense. When you throw in the 11-26 3 point shooting, you have a great offensive night. It's nice to see them doing something besides just chuck 3's and make them.
Game review
Game MVP. The biggest no brainer pick of the year. Brandon Paul channeled his inner Ohio State game guy and scored 35 on the road, repeatedly getting to the rim (and finishing), while also draining 3's from deep, getting steals, blocks, deflections, rebounds and tie ups. It's hard to imagine any one player being more dominant in a game on both ends of the floor. Paul looks like a 1st round NBA Draft pick right now, and a First Team All-Big Ten player.
Unsung Hero. Although I thought DJ Richardson was solid, we're going with Myke Henry and his 22 minutes in this one. Henry buried a pair of 3 pointers and actually played some nice defense on a couple of possessions against Elias Harris. He's improving as a player and is becoming a nice option When Tyler Griffey is in foul trouble or struggling.
Stepping it up The ups and downs of young players are extremely common, and Tracy Abrams is no different. The sophomore guard was up on Saturday night, scoring 14 points and dishing out 5 assists as he used his quickness and strength to get to the rim and finish on multiple occasions. Defensively, he's also a tough kid and as he gains that consistency we have seen from Paul this season, he will be an even better player.
Guards vs. bigs. The Illini big men weren't very good, but Gonzaga does have a solid frontcourt. Illinois does not. When Griffey isn't hitting shots, he doesn't bring a lot to the table, and although I like McLaurin as a veteran big guy that can do some little things, he's a mid-major talent. Egwu has potential, but he is foul machine and often looks like he has no idea what he is doing. Myke Henry is up and down, but had a solid effort. The key, however, is that the 4 Illinois perimeter players are dominating their opponents by and large. If you are going to be good, you want good guards. To be really good you need something from your frontcourt.
* It was another 67 possession affair, which has become standard for Illinois of late. The offense was outstanding, having their best output of the season against a quality opponent at 1.26 PPP. The defense had their worst outing of the year at 1.09 PPP, with the key being the Zags ability to get easy shots inside and get to the line. Luckily, the Illini forced turnovers at a high rate early on. In 30 second half possessions, Illinois scored 44 points, for a 1.47 PPP number.
* Illinois varied their defensive looks, but it's still clear they can't guard a big and athletic front court without fouling. Many of the fouls are silly, or unnecessary, and when you know you are going to foul a lot in the paint, you can't foul 35 feet from the hoop or even further.
* Gonzaga out rebounded Illinois 32-28, but one of our keys to the game was second chance points, and the Zags only got 11 2nd chance points and the Illini had 10 of their own. Somehow, Illinois also got 30 points in the paint compared to 32 for the Zags With the Zags frontcourt advantage, that's huge.
* Gonzaga had a who's who of former stars in attendance, with Adam Morrison, John Stockton, and Dan Dickau. It was a big game, which brought out the big names.
* Think about this, in 7 of the 10 games Illinois has played, they have put up the best offensive output against that opponent on the season from an efficiency standpoint. They have just been average defensively. In fact, they are the worst they have been in 12 years. They need to make some strides on that end of the floor.
* Can Nnanna Egwu figure it out? Right now, the answer is no. We expected him to have ups and downs, but there haven't been any ups yet, and plenty of downs.
* Illinois looking at a 14-0 start to the nonconference season if they can beat Missouri. The confidence these guys have is amazing right now.