Last year was something of a slow-motion surprise for Illinois -- and not in a good way. Frankly, Bruce Weber's team was expected to be better than they turned out to be. The Illini returned all five starters from an outfit that went 10-8 in the Big Ten in 2010. Weber brought in what on paper was an excellent recruiting class. The talk in Champaign a year ago was that this could be the best team the locals had seen since the Illini reached the 2005 national championship game.
It didn't turn out that way. Weber's team was ranked in the mid-teens nationally in both major polls to start the season, and they began Big Ten play 3-0. From that point on, however, the Illini never once won two consecutive games. And while Illinois did make the NCAA tournament and blew out UNLV in Lon Kruger's final game at the helm of the Rebels, Weber's men were brushed aside easily by Kansas in the round of 32.
This season Illinois returns just one starter -- 6-3 junior D.J. Richardson -- but these young Illini are 8-0 after defeating then-No. 18 Gonzaga 82-75 in Champaign on Saturday. Is it finally time to believe in the orange and blue once again? The next 30 days should tell all.
Going 8-0 depends on how well you play...and schedule
By scheduling nearby opponents in a year when there are a plethora of struggling programs in the state of Illinois, the Illini have already managed to play two of the very weakest teams in all of Division I in the form of SIU-Edwardsville and Chicago State. Throw in a surprisingly close four-point win on a neutral floor over an Illinois State team that went 4-14 in the Missouri Valley last year, and you can make a case that not all undefeated records are created equal.
The good news for Illinois fans is that this team's last two games have been far and away their most impressive outings. The Illini's 71-62 win over Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was noteworthy not because the Terrapins are especially strong this year but simply because it happened in College Park, Maryland, on a night when Weber's team scored well over a point per possession. By the same token in their home win over Gonzaga an Illinois offense that had looked anything but formidable earlier in the season (1.02 points per trip against Lipscomb?) suddenly became much more efficient. Take it from Bulldogs head coach Mark Few: "Their motion is so hard to guard. They sprint and move and come off multiple screens and [Weber] teaches them to read the screens so well. It's very difficult to guard, which is why we went to a zone." Usually you can chalk up that kind of talk to traditional coach-on-coach flattery, but this time the numbers back up Few. Illinois played 132 possessions against Maryland and Gonzaga and scored 153 points.
The Illini have happened upon their newfound offensive prowess in the nick of time. Their schedule over the next month will reveal whether this group really has the wherewithal to compete in the Big Ten. Neutral-site contests against UNLV (in Chicago) and Missouri (St. Louis), as well as road games against Purdue and Northwestern early in the conference season will put this team to what promises to be a very instructive test. Lastly, don't look past Wednesday's game at home against St. Bonaventure. Though just 3-3, the Bonnies may well be better than the team that went 8-8 in the rugged Atlantic 10 last year. And fresh off the visit that Gonzaga's Robert Sacre paid to Assembly Hall, SBU's 6-9 senior, Andrew Nicholson, will present the Illini's Meyers Leonard with his second consecutive skilled and experienced opposing big man.
Speaking of Leonard....
Presenting the Meyers Leonard paradox
As recently as a few weeks ago I was still hearing Illinois fans interpret the NBA's interest in Leonard as merely another instance of "What will that crazy NBA dream up next?" I don't hear that anymore. The 7-1 sophomore's been described by an opposing coach as "what it looks like when you create yourself in video games." So, sure, maybe the buzz around Leonard is partly a manifestation of what my colleague Ken Pomeroy has termed "physique bias." Then again when you have a 19-year-old who's 7-1 and makes 58 percent of his twos while carrying a non-token load of possessions for a Big Ten program, that teenager's going to attract interest. When he also shoots 84 percent at the line and blocks 15 percent of opponents' two-point attempts during his minutes without earning a lot of fouls, the interest will become intense.
For Illinois fans the paradox posed by Leonard is that the better he does this season the more likely it is he won't be around next season. Considering the only rotation player that Weber's slated to lose from this year is Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, Illinois could be set up for big things in 2012-13 if Leonard returns.
Leonard's presence can create open looks for teammates -- will it matter?
Illinois has shot just 32 percent on threes this year, and the early-season performance of 6-4 junior Brandon Paul can be charitably termed uneven: he's shooting 18 percent from beyond the arc. But starting with the second half of the Maryland game he's looked much more confident, more like someone who made 36 percent of his threes last year. Meanwhile Maniscalco and Richardson are off to good starts, shooting a combined 39 percent from outside. If the Illini can force opponents to guard the perimeter, this entire offense will benefit. Surrounding a productive big man with legitimate three-point threats is a very simple and very effective way to score. Ask Ohio State.
One good tea leaf for Illinois is their performance at the free throw line, where they're shooting an outstanding 77 percent. Under Weber the Illini have never been known to get to the line with regularity, of course, but that accuracy will still pay dividends in close games. The only question is whether this young team can indeed keep it close against the Ohio States, Wisconsins, and Purdues that await in what is likely the nation's strongest conference. If they can, Illinois will once again be a surprise. This time in a good way.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.