Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 12/14/11

It’s rather ironic when you think about it. Last year’s Illini basketball team entered the year with exceedingly high expectations; the theme was last dance for a talented senior trio. This year’s team entered with zero expectations. The theme was rebuilding and re-establishing. Yet, if it were somehow possible to get the two teams to play each other I’d pick this year’s squad every single time.

For argument sake, the game would have to be with a cloned subset of the players who were on both teams, I mean 2011 Meyers Leonard would be on the roster of last year’s team and 2012 Meyers Leonard would be on this year’s team.

And I still think last year’s squad had more overall talent; but this year’s squad has much more heart and the ability to handle both success and failure.

As we head into the annual Illini home away from home game at the United Center, I can’t help but think of how ridiculous it was that the Illini, ranked 12th in the nation at the time, actually lost to UIC there last year; a really bad UIC team that won only six games the entire season.

This year’s squad would never let that travesty happen.

“Coming down to the wire like against UIC last year and we let that game slip away, but we have a different team this year and we’re tougher and the upperclassmen did a good job of leading and locking down defensively,” said Illini guard D.J. Richardson after the 48-43 win over St. Bonaventure, in a game that was even uglier than it sounds.

So what’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s I asked.

“We have better defenders and tougher players, we came out on our heels this year,” Richardson responded.

Last year four different teams (Indiana, UIC, Penn State and Northwestern) “stormed the court” against Illinois. That had to be some kind of unofficial record; and it shows how many games the Illini lost in which they were heavily favored. At some point beating that team had to be considered less of an accomplishment- yet the Illini kept losing to teams they shouldn’t have.

However, this group is different.

“It started in Italy to be honest,” Illini coach Bruce Weber began.

“I’ve said this several times, we had some bad situations, long travel, bad refs, hot gyms, everything going against us and we found ways to win games and made plays down the stretch and get stops, and that kind of set the tone.”

So is it more team chemistry or a better ability to handle success?  From early January on, the team failed to win back to back games.

“That’s what people always say, about the chemistry, those guys are great guys, whether it’s Tis or Demetri, or Bill Cole or Mike Davis they’re great kids,” Weber said.

“It’s just there’s a competitive spirit that you need, a tenacity to win games when everything is going wrong. Right now we’ve shown that a little bit, we didn’t show that last year and we lost some games we never should have lost. But they did recover and have a good finish and did some of the greatest things in the history of Illinois basketball- when you go on individual stats. Right now we’re probably overall a better team, but we’ve got a long way to go,” he continued.

The key phrase there is “individual stats.” Mike Davis has his place among Illini rebounders, Demetri McCamey in scoring and assists. And Mike Tisdale is one of the best 7′ 1″ shooting guards the game has ever seen. As disappointing as they were, they did get the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2006, the senior year of James Augustine and Dee Brown.

But I agree with Bruce in that this year’s team is better- and they’re increased desire and competitiveness makes them a lot more likable too.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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