There was a moment on Wednesday night when Brandon Paul got the ball beyond the three point line and began dribbling to his left, toward the top of the key. Once he got there Paul leapt to take an off-balance three-pointer, flailing his right leg out in an attempt to draw contact from the Boilermaker defending him. The contact never came, and the shot Paul got off would rise like a lot of Brandon's shots do, but when it came down it would hit near the top of the backboard and off to the left, careening down to the court and into the hands of a Purdue rebounder.
It was a moment that Illini basketball fans had seen before from Brandon Paul during his Illini career. When Paul came to Champaign from Gurnee in 2009 as a freshman, his talent was obvious. Even though he played only 19 minutes a game that season and averaged 7.8 points per game, it was easy to see why he had been named Illinois' 2009 Mr. Basketball his senior year of high school.
And as that became more obvious, so did the expectations for Brandon in Champaign rise. He would improve with each season, improving his points per game from 7.8 to 9.0 and finally to 14.7 last season. What those point totals don't show, however, was that Brandon also became one of the must frustrating players to watch because of that talent and what he was doing with it.
Yes, he averaged nearly 15 points per game last season, but he did so while shooting 39% from the floor and 33% from deep. He wasn't as much of a scorer as he was a volume shooter. And he had the volume turned up to 11 most of the time.
But then this season came along, and when it started it felt as though Brandon had not only matured, but that he'd found a soulmate coach in John Groce. He was free to do as he pleased, but ironically, that freedom seemed to rein him in. He felt the responsibility of knowing he was a senior and that he'd have to be a leader on this team.
And the results early were amazing. He was named MVP of the Maui Invitational and his 35-point performance against Gonzaga started garnering Brandon national attention. Not only was he having his name thrown around as a possible Big Ten player of the year, but the national player of the year as well. At that point in the year BP3 was averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 48% from the floor and 41% from three.
Since that game, however, the frustrating Brandon Paul has slowly been creeping his way back on the court.
In his last five games Paul is averaging a nice 16.4 points per game, but his shooting percentages have dropped from 48% and 41% to 34% and 31%. Those numbers look a lot like Paul's numbers from last season.
Not surprisingly, the Illini were 10-0 in the ten games Brandon was shooting better than 40% and averaging nearly 20 points per game. In the five since, when his numbers have dropped, the Illini are 3-2.
The fact that this Illinois team will go as far as Brandon Paul will take them is nothing new. We knew that the second Meyers Leonard announced he'd be entering the NBA Draft last year. It's just over the first two months of the season it wasn't as scary as an idea as it's starting to become now. There's a chance that Brandon Paul is just having a rough stretch -- and one that's not as rough as D.J. Richardson's at that, his fellow senior -- the last few weeks and will get past it and back to the player he had been before.
But there's also a chance that he got off to a hot start against a lot of bad teams and had a night similar to the one he had against Ohio State last year while in Spokane.
We just don't know, and all we can do is wonder which Brandon Paul will show up. Whichever one does will decide this team's fate.