Meyers Leonard raising his game when Illinois needs it most

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If not for Kentucky-North Carolina, Meyers Leonard’s impressive game Saturday might’ve caught more attention.

Oh well. The 7-foot Illinois sophomore will have to settle for wowing Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre.

“He’s super athletic,” Gonzaga’s center told the State Register-Journal. “He runs the floor like a deer. He’s a good player. I should have respected him more. He’s got a great future.”

That’s what happens when you drop 21 points — on nine of 11 shots – on the Zags and pick up the biggest win of the season. It might’ve been even more impressive had Leonard not been saddled with foul trouble in the first half. But the Zags could only do so much as Leonard scored 17 in the second half, including 12 of their final 24 points.

“We knew he was a physically gifted guy,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Rob needed to keep the ball out of there. He was guarding him after he got the ball. That was probably the biggest problem. And (Leonard) showed he’s effective after he did get a catch in there.”

So how does a guy who played such a minor role as a freshman blossom into Illinois’ leading scorer (13.4) and rebounder (6.6) as a sophomore?

For starters, he needed a chance. Illinois lost senior Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and freshman Jereme Richmond from last season’s 20-14 squad, opening up plenty of playing time. Not that Bruce Weber’s staff was going sit Leonard anyway. They knew he and junior guard Brandon Paul could be difference-makers.

“Yes, I did and our staff did,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “I didn’t know we would do it, but I thought we were capable. Brandon and Meyers could be two of the better players in the country.”

That meant Leonard needed to refine his varied post game – Weber told him that instead of 16 post moves, he needed two or three – and be more decisive with the ball. That was on display against Gonzaga, when Leonard scored on fadeaways, dunks, putbacks and short jumpers.

It’s all working, too. Leonard’s offensive efficiency has skyrocketed  — from 78.8 to 120.5 – while taking a larger role in the offense. He’s also boosted his rebounding, he’s shooting better and he’s blocking shots at a rate few players can match.

Illinois won’t be tested again until a Dec. 17 game against UNLV, which means we know just how good this unbeaten team really is. If Leonard continues to play like this, I have a hunch it’ll be promising for Weber.

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