By PAUL KLEE
During a workout in April, Mike Tisdale and Meyers Leonard traded barbs.
The 7-foot-1 Tisdale is the Illinois basketball team’s starting center. The 7-foot Leonard is an incoming freshman and the heir at center.
“I could dunk on you with this thing on,” said Leonard, who wore a walking boot as he rested a stress fracture.
“We’ll see about that,” Tisdale replied with a laugh.
The trash talk was in good nature. And if Illinois is going to validate a preseason Top 25 ranking during the 2010-11 season, there must be a noticeable and positive camaraderie between the established veterans and the incoming freshmen.
Illinois returns five starters. It also welcomes three freshmen who carry loads of promise.
“It’s going to be important the older guys bring them (freshmen) with them,” head coach Bruce Weber said.
How important? Look no further than two years ago. A team that had enough talent to make the NCAA tournament instead lost 19 games and stayed at home for late March. Or you can look at last season. Illinois went 21-15, missed the NCAA tournament again and lost at home to Dayton in the NIT.
“Last year was really disappointing for us and (for) the fans,” Tisdale said.
Still, there is great anticipation for the upcoming season, in part because of the big three in the senior class. Point guard Demetri McCamey was named All-Big Ten as a junior. Forward Mike Davis led the league in rebounding. Tisdale added considerable weight to his lanky frame and remains a deadeye shooter.
“What happened last (season), we don’t want to go through that again,” McCamey said.
Once the season opens, however, all eyes will be on the three newcomers. It’s a recruiting class that rated among the top 15 in the country, according to various recruiting services.
Jereme Richmond, a 6-foot-7 wing and Weber’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit, has legitimate NBA aspirations. So does Leonard, a top-50 recruit from Robinson who should push Tisdale for playing time. Crandall Head, a 6-5 guard, is the finest athlete of the bunch. The younger brother of former Illini Luther Head is coming off a major knee surgery and could be limited in the early going.
One of Weber’s chief concerns is making certain there isn’t a division between the older players and the rookies. That Richmond, Leonard and Head were early commitments — and already have spent a lot of time with the current players — should ease the transition.
“They’ve been around it,” Weber said. “You hope that helps.”
The coaching staff is cautiously optimistic about these Illini. That was apparent as Weber OK’d the most challenging schedule of his eight seasons.
Nonconference highlights include a home game against North Carolina (in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) and away games against Gonzaga (in Seattle) and Missouri (in St. Louis). The Illini also will compete against two of Pittsburgh, Texas or Maryland in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York City.