By MARK TUPPER
H&R Executive Sports Editor
URBANA – As Brandon Paul was being recognized as the MVP of the Illini basketball team Saturday night, watching quietly from a table at the Holiday Inn was his younger brother, Darius.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Illini team banquet, Darius turned to his Twitter account and announced to the world that he would soon be slipping on an Illini uniform, too. His message:
“It’s a privilege to be put in this situation I’ve been put in…will be wearing orange & blue for the rest of my college career #Illini…”
Paul, a 6-8, 220-pound forward, was the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in his one season at Western Michigan. He will sit out the coming season and have three years of athletic eligibility remaining.
Paul’s stock soared after a strong season with the Bulldogs in which he averaged 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
Changes with the Western Michigan coaching staff and a desire to challenge himself at a higher level led to Paul’s decision to transfer. And since it became known he was looking for a new home, among the schools that expressed high interest were Florida, Missouri, Marquette, Iowa State, Miami (Fla.), Nevada and Nebraska.
A new Missouri assistant coach is Rick Carter, who had close ties to Paul while an assistant coach at Western Michigan.
Several times during the Illini team banquet, Brandon Paul made it clear he would endorse his brother’s move to Illinois.
The elder Paul, who is preparing for the upcoming NBA draft, did a comical impersonation of coach John Groce, then called the current collection of Illini coaches, “the greatest staff in the world.
“This year was amazing. It’s been the best four years of my life. I think the program is going in a great direction.”
Then, in touching on the coaching change that brought in Groce to replace Bruce Weber, Brandon Paul said, “This was definitely the best-case scenario. I wish the past coaches luck but this was better for everyone.”
Paul’s arrival is the fifth transfer Groce has picked up in a little over 13 months.
He grabbed Champaign native and former Drake player Rayvonte Rice, who sat out the 2012-13 season and will be eligible this year. Rice was one of three players Groce cited when sharing the “most improved” award at the team banquet.
He then got fifth-year player Sam McLaurin, who came from Coastal Carolina to complete his eligibility. McLaurin was lauded at the banquet for his defense and hustle and won the Matto Award for extra effort plays and shared Groce’s new “TNT Award” for positive play on the defensive end of the floor.
Groce recently accepted guard Aaron Cosby into the program. Cosby, who is transferring from Seton Hall, will sit out the coming season and have two years of eligibility remaining.
Then Groce welcomed another fifth-year player in former Illinois State forward Jon Ekey, who will be instantly eligible for the 2013-14 season only.
And now Darius Paul.
Is there a another transfer yet to come?
The mysterious no-show at Saturday’s team banquet was forward Myke Henry, who was only mentioned once by Groce and was lumped into a group with Mike Shaw, Ibby Djimde and Devin Langford, the latter three of which announced their intentions to transfer after the recent season ended.
The university did not respond to requests about Henry’s status. But if Henry departs, Groce could fill that spot with transfer Ahmad Starks, a point guard from Oregon State.
Starks, who played high school ball at Whitney Young in Chicago, is seeking an NCAA medical hardship waiver to move closer to his ailing grandmother, who he said was largely responsible for raising him. She reportedly is suffering from advanced dementia.
Starks would need to be academically accepted by the university and be approved for the NCAA waiver for him to fit into Illinois’ plans to add an experienced point guard to join returning Tracy Abrams and incoming freshman Jaylon Tate of Chicago Simeon at the position.
If Henry were to leave, Groce would have just three returning scholarship players from his first Illini team that won 23 games and nearly beat Miami for a trip to the Sweet 16.
Those three would be Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand. Walkon Mike LaTulip also returns.