Let's make this clear. Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard is a kid trapped in a big man's body. So any talk about Leonard growing up still must come with an asterisk, such as the Robinson native's desire as a shot blocker.
CHAMPAIGN -- Let's make this clear. Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard is a kid trapped in a big man's body.
So any talk about Leonard growing up still must come with an asterisk, such as the Robinson native's desire as a shot blocker.
"I really want to grab one, keep it in play,'' said Leonard, who had 13 blocks in the first three games. "I really want to put one in A section. You can write that down if you want.''
Before Illinois (3-0) played Richmond (3-1) in the Cancun Challenge on Tuesday, it's hard not to notice the change in Leonard, the athletic 7-foot-1, 245-pounder cranked up his intensity over the past three weeks and showed signs of becoming the post presence needed on a young roster.
The NBA has also noticed. Scouts have attended practice and called to coach Bruce Weber. In the biggest sign of Leonard's growth, he's trying to avoid looking too far ahead and saying the right things.
"I stay away from it as much as possible,'' he said. "I'm just trying to keep my head on straight. About 2 1/2 or three weeks ago, I got my heard turned around again. I said to myself, 'I'm here for this season. The future will come if I play well here.'
"That's all I've been concerned about. I've been a lot better with the coaches, listening and getting better everyday and playing hard. I know if I play well, then I'll have a chance.''
A chance, as he called it, means making a jump to the NBA. After this season. The league drafts traditionally on size, youth and upside. Leonard has all three. One thing he doesn't have is a track record against high-level competition.
"(The NBA) obviously comes up in your mind,'' Leonard said. "It's a life-changer. There's no sense thinking about it right now. I've not even played a really good college game against a ranked opponent.''
Richmond center Darrius Garrett is a rebounder and defender, but Leonard's first battle royale may come on Dec. 3 when the Illini host Gonzaga and bruising big man Robert Sacre.
Menawhile, Leonard is still learning how to use his body on offense and, especially, defense. He blocked 13 shots in the first three games, but foul trouble could be an issue.
Against Lipscomb, Leonard had two fouls in the first 1 minute 45 seconds. Being aggressive is one thing. Being smart is another. Leonard is learning about shot blocking.
"He's got to be smart,'' Weber said. "You don't have to block every one. It's almost like a new toy. He's starting to figure things out.''
What's more fun? A dunk or a blocked shot?
"Dunking on somebody over a block,'' Leonard said. "Definitely a block, cause I can smile.''
BASKETBALL: Next season, Illinois returns to the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii. Butler, Marquette, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Texas, USC and host Chaminade, a Division II program, are the scheduled teams for the premier early-season college tournament.
Weber led the Illini to a third-place finish in 2007, where Illinois is 6-3 all-time. The Illini lost to Arizona in the 2000 championship game and finished third in 1987.
VOLLEYBALL: With one week remaining in the regular season, Illinois (25-4 overall, 14-4 in the Big Ten) can do no better than a first-place tie in the Big Ten race. Ranked No. 1 at one point this season, the Illini are tied with Purdue and Penn State for second place, two games behind Nebraska.
Illinois hosts Northwestern on Wednesday and Iowa on Saturday.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.