Tipoff: Indiana at Illinois, 7 p.m. tonight
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BLOOMINGTON -- So what do you do, if you're the Indiana Hoosiers, about this Brandon Paul problem?
Paul is the high-scoring Illinois guard who, when he gets hot, lights up a scoreboard like no other Big Ten player. At those times, defense is irrelevant. Distance is no problem. You can do everything right defensively and still pay a three-point price.
IU associate head coach Tim Buckley understands the problem well. He has the scout for tonight's conference battle at the Illini's Assembly Hall. He knows that Paul almost single-handedly beat Ohio State last year when he scored 43 points. He recognizes the significance of the senior's 17.4 scoring average.
Stopping Paul, or at least slow him down, is a key.
“He's gonna hit some shots where you're just gonna shake your head and say, 'Wow, I thought he was covered,'” Buckley said. “'The defense played the coverage the right way if it's in the pick-and-roll or you're getting back in transition and you're draped all over him, and he can just rise up and shoot it.
“I don't think he has a range. I think it's limitless. I think he can shoot the ball really deep. When he's in that rhythm, anything that's up there looks like it's going in. I'd say he's as good of a shooter or a scorer as there is in the country when he's really got it going.”
That's true of all the Illini, who spent the first two months of the season proving they were one of America's best teams and the last month showing they are not.
A 12-0 start has faded to a 15-8 disappointment that includes a 2-7 Big Ten record.
Under new coach John Groce, their curse and blessing is the three-point shot. During non-conference games they got the beyond-the-arc space to hit shots. In conference play, space disappears. They shoot just 32.8 percent on three-pointers, which is significant given they have taken more (555) than any other Big Ten team.
“When they're making shots and they're in their rhythm and they're playing the way that they want to play (offensively), they're probably playing better defensively and playing better on the backboards,” Buckley said. “You can't let them get into that rhythm. I think they're very capable offensively, so they're going to make tough shots. You can't give them any of the easy shots.”
Top-ranked Indiana (20-2, 8-1) has thrived because it gives up very little easy. Better defense and fast-break offense are two of its trademarks, and those figure to be in full display against an Illinois squad desperate to remain in NCAA tourney discussion.
“We know that we've got to play Illinois like (it is) the team that played early in the year and has played at its best,” Buckley said. “Because they are very capable of that. They are a team that can score points. They can make threes. They can beat you off penetration. Our focus and our mindset defensively is going to be very important.”
The Hoosiers need a victory to stay ahead of Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten race.
“We know going into Fighting Illini country will be major challenge,” coach Tom Crean said. “We will be as good as our preparation, toughness and execution.
“John Groce and his staff can really coach. They play very, very hard. They are very aggressive on both ends.”
Aggression figures to intensify given the Illini need a statement-making victory, and you can't make a bigger statement than beating the nation's No. 1 team.
Crean said the Hoosiers embrace being the target.
“The team has been down this road before. They know what it means to the opponent's fan base. They know what it means to the opponent. They know what that means on the national level.”
Crean knows that the No. 1 ranking guarantees nothing. The top-ranked team has lost each of the last four weeks -- Duke, Louisville, Duke again, and then Michigan.
“What has become so popular,” Crean said, “is once that No. 1 vote is made, to predict who is going to be next, when are you going to lose and let somebody else get the No. 1 spot.”
The key, he added, is having the right perspective.
“The more we understand the responsibility that comes with it, especially on the road and knowing that you are going to get the best shot from those teams. It is amazing what that number, whether it is a four, three two or one, what that does. What we have to do is make sure that we are better; that we are not trying to defend anything but the other team. We are not trying to prove anything except that we are going to get better.”