Given the relative underachievement of a senior-laden squad last season, it was natural that this year's version of the Illinois basketball team would enter the 2011-2012 season with lower expectations.
And after beating No. 19 Gonzaga at home 82-75 on Saturday, it's impossible not to wonder if this Illini team, now 8-0, is better.
Addition by subtraction almost seems crazy after the graduation of Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole and the departure of Jereme Richardson to the NBA draft. Only two returning players -- Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson -- were significant contributors last season.
One reason for the Illini's hot start is 7-1 sophomore Meyers Leonard, who, despite sitting out most of the first half due to foul trouble, controlled Gonzaga's Robert Sacre and was incredibly efficient on the offensive end. In just 24 minutes, Leonard grabbed six rebounds and scored 21 points thanks to 9-11 shooting from the field -- his third effort of over 20 points in 2011.
In just over 8 minutes per game last season, Leonard averaged two points. This season, he's recorded over 25 minutes per game and has shot over 60 percent from the field, providing the Illini with the post presence that Tisdale wasn't. During Tuesday's 71-62 win at Maryland, Leonard was 6-9 from the field.
That's two quality nonconference wins in a week, but the true test of the Illini's strength will come in the next three weeks. Illinois should be 10-0 when UNLV comes to Champaign on December 17 and five days later, the Illini travel to St. Louis for the Braggin' Rights game against Missouri.