Last night’s 79-51 exhibition rout of Wayne State was expected for most Illini basketball fans. The most important number of the box score is found in the game’s leading scorer, Meyers Leonard. He had 18 points, in just 16 minutes, that’s a great sign for your Illinois Fighting Illini, because they’ll really need Leonard to be good, if they’re going to be good.Leonard came in with a lot of hype, even talk of leaving early for the NBA, but instead had an abominable freshman year. He was extremely foul prone in the scant minutes he played, and often looked lost on the floor.
“he was so humbled after last season, not having success. all the talk and the hype before last year, and then he gets as low as you can be, lower than a snake’s belly,” Bruce Weber said.
Leonard didn’t even want to go to USA basketball, thinking he might not even make the cut. But his coach Weber is on the committee, so obviously he had a good chance of making the cut. And Leonard had a great summer for the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia, he went out and proved it. And that added to his confidence.
“The biggest step is he realized he has to grow up,” Weber said.
“He has all the physical gifts, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see a 7-1 running the court, good hands good touch. I need him to play inside and rebound, but at the same time I’ll let him shoot a 15-17 footer. He’s a good shooter, but he has to go in and do those other things is we’re going to be successful. He’s got to be a 10-10 guy,” Weber continued at media day.
Very true, Leonard sporting a double double average for points and rebounds would make a world of difference for Illinois. Leonard knows there’s a lot of weight on his soldiers this season.
“I feel it somewhat, I make it more of a motivatiom but I know I have to be good, I know I have to lead in order for us to be good,” he said.
There are questions about where the rebounding will come from, and it won’t be long before Bruce Weber’s seat gets warm if mediocrity continues in Champaign. The Illini have a 44-44 conference record and only one NCAA Tournament victory in the past five seasons (when Weber was coaching his own guys and not in charge of Bill Self’s leftovers.)
And Leonard has a ton of upside to possibly lead them there. He didn’t really impress on the Italy trip (he was a bit dinged up then) but he grew a lot from USA basketball.
“It’s interesting to see how all the foreign guys play. We beat the three best teams but lost to Russia, and overall,” he said.
And he’s gained a lot of muscle weight. Usually he fluctuates 10-15 pounds a year and loses a bunch through conditioning, like most players. This year, he’s held steady at 240.
“People can tell, they say I have bigger arms, bigger overall,” Meyers said.
“They say you must be in the weight room a lot. In the summer I was lifting 4-5 times a week, and kept my weight on through conditioning.”
For the full Illini season preview go here
A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; he’s also a member of the FWAA, USBWA and SPJ. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.