LAHAINA - Illinois' Brandon Paul certainly justified the preseason attention he received.
The 6-foot-4 senior guard was named Most Valuable Player of the EA Sports Maui Invitational on Wednesday after leading the Illini to the tournament championship at the Lahaina Civic Center.
In the title game against Butler, Paul had 20 points, four assists and three rebounds as Illinois won 78-61.
Tournament MVP Brandon Paul of Illinois drives between Butler’s Devontae Morgan and Kameron Woods.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
After receiving the MVP trophy, he lifted it above his head with both hands and faced the Illini fans on one side of the court, drawing a huge ovation. Then, he got a similar reaction when he turned around and faced the fans on the other side.
"It's obviously a blessing," said Paul, a member of the Wooden Award's preseason top 50 list. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for God, my family members, friends and my teammates and coaching staff. We came out with the mindset that we wanted to prove ourselves, and I think we did that. We got the championship we wanted, and I'm proud of my teammates. The MVP is just the icing on the cake for me."
Illinois is off to a 6-0 start under first-year coach John Groce, with five of the victories by double digits - including all three on Maui.
Brandon Paul, Illinois (tournament MVP); D.J. Richardson, Illinois; Reggie Bullock, North Carolina; Vander Blue, Marquette; Rotnei Clarke, Butler; De'Andre Haskins, Chaminade.
Maui Invitational MVPs
2012-Brandon Paul, Illinois
2011-Ryan Kelly, Duke
2010-Kemba Walker, Connecticut
2009-Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga
2008-Ty Lawson, North Carolina
2007-Kyle Singler, Duke
2006-Darren Collison, UCLA
2005-Adam Morrison, Gonzaga
2004-Raymond Felton, North Carolina
2003-Keith Waleskowski, Dayton
2002-Bracey Wright, Indiana
2001-Mike Dunleavy, Duke
2000-Michael Wright, Arizona
1999-Joseph Forte, North Carolina
1998-Jason Hart, Syracuse
1997-Steve Wojciechowski, Duke
1996-Raef LaFrentz, Kansas
1995-Kerry Kittles, Villanova
1994-Mario Bennett, Arizona St.
1993-Travis Ford, Kentucky
1992-Bobby Hurley, Duke; Anfernee Hardaway, Memphis St.
1991-George Gilmore, Chaminade
1990-Billy Owens, Syracuse
1989-Doug Smith, Missouri
1988-Glenn Rice, Michigan
1986-Will Purdue, Vanderbilt
1985-Dell Curry, Virginia Tech
1984-Patrick Langlois, Chaminade
"Obviously, do you envision sitting at 6-0? I'm a little different, these guys will tell you. I focus on practice every day. We try to get better every day and let the results take care of themselves."
Paul, who is from Gurnee, Ill., listed Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade as his favorite player in the Illinois media guide. They definitely have similar games.
In three tournament contests, Paul had 59 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He shot 19-of-37 from the field - 10-of-21 from 3-point range - and made all 11 of his free throws.
Butler coach Brad Stevens expects to see Paul at the next level.
"They're a really good basketball team, and Brandon Paul is a pro (level player)," Stevens said. "He's a big-time pro. Not only because of the way he shoots it, but he creates distance on his drives. I had to ask (the officials) a couple times if he was traveling, and I don't think he was, but he has such a long stride it's tough to keep in front. We had good athletes guarding him and we still couldn't keep him in front. Clearly, he's as good as a pro prospect as there probably was in this tournament."
Paul logged a combined 94 minutes played in the tournament, but said he wasn't fatigued near the end of Wednesday's game.
"Quite honestly, my legs feel great," Paul said. "The coaching staff makes sure we got what we need done before the game, and when it comes to practice time. As long as we go hard in everything we do, coach Groce likes to have a pace for everything. They make sure we're fresh, and I'm feeling pretty good right now."
For the season, Paul is averaging 19.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
"I think coach Groce's offense opened it up for us," Paul said. "The offense works with the type of players we have on this team. I probably took a couple bad shots today, but for the most part, the offense gives us a chance to make baskets. Not only that, just working in the offseason. We put up a lot of work not only as a team, but individually and it's starting to show now."
* Kyle Sakamoto is at firstname.lastname@example.org