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Illinois hoops nonconference review

Illinois, 11-2 non-conference record, RPI .6053 (31st)

The good: Illinois stayed away from a “bad” loss this nonconference season unlike the past few years. Cornell, Illinois State and St. Bonaventure each gave Illinois a scare, but the Illini found a way to pull out each game. … Meyers Leonard has finally broken through. He isn’t a finished product, but he is a consistent force inside and has dominated in some games. He’s averaging 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. … Senior Sam Maniscalco has remained injury free and has given quality minutes at the point guard position. There were concerns about his durability heading into the season. ... Brandon Paul is becoming more consistent. You weren’t sure what you were getting from Paul the last two seasons and even early into this season. In six of the last seven games, Paul has scored in double figures. He had 12 points in the final four minutes to lead Illinois over St. Bonaventure.

The bad: Illinois lost two of its three marquee nonconference games. It played some of its best basketball of the season against Gonzaga, but struggled during large spurts of the UNLV and Missouri games. … The Illini’s offense goes through stretches where it struggles to score. That was especially seen in Illinois’ 63-48 loss to UNLV at the United Center. The Illini need to find a way to break out of those slumps. … Illinois’ bench has been non-existent at times. Bertrand was the only bench player to score against Missouri. The bench didn’t score against Cornell and had three points against UNLV.

Team MVP: Junior guard D.J. Richardson has been the team’s most-consistent player. He leads in the team in scoring (13.4 points) and is shooting a career best from the field, free-throw line and 3-point range.

Overall: It wasn’t always pretty, but Illinois came out of its non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record and a quality win over Gonzaga. It has to be deemed a successful non-conference season.

Moving forward: Big Ten play should be interesting. Ohio State is undoubtedly the conference’s best team, but the rest of the spots are up for grabs. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin look to be very even. There’s a chance Illinois could fall anywhere from second to eighth place.

Conference season key: Illinois needs more out of its highly-touted freshman class, which was ranked No. 11 by ESPN Recruiting. Freshmen Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Myke Henry and Mike Shaw have combined for 8.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks. That also means for Illinois coach Bruce Weber to give his freshmen more of a chance. Abrams is the only one of the bunch to receive consistent minutes.