|Brandong Paul, left, and Meyers Leonard, right, have been good but need to actually improve to give Illinois a chance at a good seed and good run. (AP)|
By Jeff Goodman
Bruce Weber's Illinois team was a question mark for many this season.
Some figured losing veterans Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale - - despite their production over the course of their careers -- would force the Illini to take a step back. Others felt it could be addition by subtraction since that group had underachieved, going to a pair of NCAA tournaments, one NIT and even failing to advance to the postseason in one of the four seasons on campus.
Troubled, yet talented freshman Jereme Richmond was also gone -- which clearly appeared to help the chemistry of the team.
Weber was left with a core group consisting of ultra-talented 7-footer Meyers Leonard and a bunch of solid, yet not spectacular perimeter guys that included Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Weber's expectation was that Paul would quickly emerge as the team's go-to guy. but it didn't happen. In fact, Paul struggled for much of the season -- until his spectacular 43-point outburst on Tuesday night in a win over Ohio State.
"I've seen some great performances, when Glen Robinson went for 49 and when Scott Skiles had 40-something against us when I was at Purdue," Weber said. "This one was right there. It was pretty special -- and the crazy thing is he did it on just 15 shots."
Now the key for Weber will be if Paul and Leonard -- who has also been erratic this season -- can establish a level of consistency the rest of the Big Ten slate. Can they sustain it?
Weber is optimistic that starting point guard Sam Maniscalso will return to practice this weekend and return on Jan. 19 at Penn State, but said he'll likely keep freshman Tracy Abrams in the stating lineup for the time being.
Illinois improved to 15-3 with a trio of respectable losses: against UNLV in Chicago, against Missouri in Saint Louis and on the road to Purdue. The Illini now have two resume wins: against Ohio State and Gonzaga at Assembly Hall.
Now the key will be whether Paul can use his most recent performance to kick-start the rest of the season -- and whether Leonard can avoid the ups and downs that have plagued him much of this season.