CHAMPAIGN — Illinois sophomore Brandon Paul doesn’t want to think about last season, and he doesn’t want to live through it again.

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois sophomore Brandon Paul doesn’t want to think about last season, and he doesn’t want to live through it again.

Paul, the guard from Gurnee Warren High School who arrived with big expectations as Mr. Basketball in Illinois, began his college career with a school record. His 22 points against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville were the most by an Illini freshman in a debut, then he backed it up with 20 points against Northern Illinois in his second game. He eventually hit the skids before rebounding late in the season.

When No. 12 Illinois (10-1) meets Illinois-Chicago (4-7) at the United Center in Chicago on Saturday (1 p.m., Big Ten Network), Paul could use a game to get out of a slide, slump, cold spell —whatever you want to call it.

He has been a little too quiet over the last four games, except for making back-to-back 3-pointers in a 73-61 victory over Gonzaga. Sounds a little like last season.

“The last couple of games, I didn’t really show up that much,’’ Paul said after practice Thursday. “Maybe I’m thinking too much like last year. I found myself worrying about too many things. If I worry about one thing per game, like playing defense, the points will come.’’

Coach Bruce Weber might not be concerned about a prolonged slump, but the coaching staff already has talked about getting Paul back up to speed and developing him into a more reliable contributor. With Paul playing well, the Illini are more athletic and tougher to defend.

“We need him,’’ Weber said. “He gives us a whole different dimension. He does a lot of things with the basketball.’’

Numbers drop

Paul’s productivity has fallen off on both ends of the court. He’s averaging 9.0 points this season but just 4.8 in the last four games, despite scoring 12 points against Gonzaga. Paul leads the Matto play-hard chart with a score of 60, but he scored only 12 on the defensive stats in the last four games combined.

While sophomore guard D.J. Richardson plays a steady, solid game with some sharpshooting and serving as the defensive stopper, Paul is more erratic.

“For us to be good, he’s got to be good,’’ associate head coach Wayne McClain said. “That’s my message to him every day.’’

Already a pleasant surprise after taking over the role of backup point guard to start the season, Paul began this year just like the last one.

He made six 3-pointers in the opener, and the 18 points scored against Cal-Irvine that night stands as his season high. It reminds everyone of last season.

“I try not to worry about it,’’ Paul said. “If I start thinking too much about what happened last year, the same thing is going to happen. I try to watch film when I go home, watch film when I get (to the basketball complex). I try to look at the things I did wrong and try to focus on getting better in practice.’’

Huge potential

The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder is the best athlete on the team, and he has the explosion and strength to finish plays. Nearly half of his 2-point goals this season are dunks (nine of 21), so perhaps it’s tougher to meet the expectations.

Paul produced his best game against Maryland, when he posted 12 points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals, and his better performances have come against big-name competition. Paul leads the team and ranks eighth in the Big Ten Conference with 1.45 steals per game, but he has not had one in the last four games.
    
Paul has improved his ballhandling. His shot selection is better. Like Richardson, he’s expected to rebound more. It’s still a process of learning the game at the next level, and time doesn’t always wait on a Mr. Basketball.
    
“He always wants to be aggressive,’’ Illini guard Demetri McCamey said. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing. He’s got to calm down and relax and let the game come to him.’’
    
Some of it comes back to toughness, Weber said, because Paul must blast through a wall that holds him back.
 
“He gets to the point in practice as soon as he gets a little tired, he has a tendency to take himself out and not go as hard,’’ Weber said. “He’s got to push through the pain threshold so he can do it in a game.’’

Weber commended Paul’s even temperament, but the coach is trying to inspire Paul to reach another level.

“Sometimes I’d like him to get a little rattled and get the motor going, the fire burning,’’ Weber said.

He doesn’t want Paul to cool off like last season.

John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977.