Last year was something of a slow-motion surprise for the Illinois Fighting Illini -- and not in a good way. Frankly, Bruce Weber's team was expected to be better than it 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-foot-3 junior D.J. Richardson -- but these young Illini are 8-0, and debuted in the Coaches Poll at No. 22 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.