After an abysmal second half last season, the firing of its coach and the loss of an NBA lottery-pick center, few expected Illinois to be where it's at.
Under new coach John Groce and some hot 3-point shooting, the 13th-ranked Fighting Illini can go 9-0 for the second straight year Tuesday night against visiting Western Carolina.
The Illini will soon want to depart from last year's script, though, as the team finished 7-15 after starting 10-0. But spirits are much higher in Champaign thus far, particularly after they received a late spark from an unlikely source in Wednesday's 75-62 home win over Georgia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Illinois trailed by four with 7:15 remaining, before junior Joseph Bertrand scored every point in a 10-0 run, which sparked a 21-4 game-ending run for his team. Twelve of the reserve guard's 15 points came in the second half and he finished 6 of 8 from the floor.
The Illini held the Yellow Jackets to 1-of-11 shooting to end the game.
"Our defense ignited our offense during that 21-4 run," Groce said. "When we defend like that and get some stops, we can put points on the board in a hurry. That's what happened to end the game."
With the early departure of 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard (13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season) for June's NBA Draft, Illinois' already perimeter-focused attack is leaning even more heavily on its guards. And it's getting great results.
The Illini hit a season-high 14 3-pointers against Georgia Tech - two shy of the school record - and average 11.3 makes on 26.8 attempts per game. They hit an average of 5.8 3-pointers last year.
Groce's squad is shooting 41.9 percent from distance, one of the best marks in the country. Brandon Paul leads the way with an average of 18.3 points, and is shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range. Paul averaged 14.7 a year ago but his efficiency has improved drastically. The senior guard is hitting 48.0 percent of his shots, up from 39.2 percent a year ago.
"I just feel like in this offense, it fits my game a lot more than the past offenses have," Paul said. "I think everyone has the confidence to play the game."
But Illinois' heavy reliance on the 3-point shot could eventually spell trouble. The Illini have hit at least 10 3-pointers seven times and haven't shot worse than 35.5 percent from long range once. While surprised with his team's 8-0 start, Groce is cautioning his team from getting too excited.
"What's it mean in terms of the long-term mission that we're on to try to be the best basketball team that we can be in February and March?'' he asked. "Not a whole lot.''
Western Carolina (3-5) could present some challenges if it catches Illinois looking ahead to its Saturday game at No. 10 Gonzaga. The Catamounts are holding opponents to 29.5 percent 3-point shooting, are forcing 16.6 turnovers a game and only an opposing layup with three seconds left kept them from handing Eastern Kentucky its first loss on Saturday. Western Carolina instead lost 72-70.
Junior guard Trey Sumler averages a team-best 17.6 points, but finished with a season-low nine Saturday.
Illinois won the only other meeting 58-35 on Dec. 17, 2007. The Illini have won 19 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents, while Western Carolina is 0-18 versus ranked teams since 1996.
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