After last season's debacle, the Illini's hot start to this year has to feel like coming home again to head Coach Bruce Weber.
Since his arrival in Champaign, Weber has fielded teams that have fought for, and at times, won the Big 10 championship, culminating in the 2004-2005 season when Illinois went 37-2, and fell just five points shy of winning the national title.
In fact, Weber's Illini teams had never finished with less than 23 wins, let alone a losing record before last season.
Certainly most knew that last year would be a rebuilding one, but 16-19 overall, and a disastrous 5-13 in the Big Ten was unforeseen. That’s why Illinois’ 9-1 start to the season has fans breathing a sigh of relief as it appears the dark days are over.
Yes, Illinois has built their schedule on the backs of mostly also-ran opponents that they should beat, but that is exactly why this season appears to be different. Last season, Illinois had losses to non-conference lightweights like Miami of Ohio, and Tennessee State; as well as conference losses to traditionally cellar-dwelling Michigan and Penn State
While their conference schedule has yet to begin, handling their business against the teams meant to be schedule fodder is one way to make sure they aren’t sitting home during the postseason for a second straight year.
Sophomore forward Mike Davis has taken the team and put it on his shoulders. After averaging just 10 minutes and two points a game, Davis has scored over 20 points in three games and is averaging 13 points per game this season.
Those numbers include a team high 28 points in Illinois’ two-point loss to now 25th-ranked and undefeated Clemson. Davis is also the leading rebounder for the team, pulling down 8.7 boards a game.
Only Missouri stands in the way of the Illini going into Big Ten play sitting pretty at 12-1. The conference will be no cake walk, with Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue already occupying the Top 25, and upstart surprise teams like Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa also impressive.
Illinois probably stands little chance of returning to the top of the conference, but a decent showing should return them to the NCAA tournament, right where they belong.