Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 12/3/11

Even when Illinois is having a down year, or a “rebuilding year,” they still get at least one win in over a ranked team. In 1998-99 and 2007-08 (two college basketball seasons that saw Illinois break the school record for losses) they still beat a couple ranked teams- even if it didn’t happen until the Big Ten Tournament.

It’s a hallmark of where Illinois is as a program, even in lean years they’re serviceable. Most experts expected this season to be a down year in Champaign, and that’s understandable given all the questions marks. However, as today’s solid, comfortable win over a top 20 team shows, the Illini might be a better team than you think they are.

This was the first game for Illlinois versus a ranked opponent, and the victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs gives a lot more legitimacy to their 8-0 record; over the 7-0 with which they entered the game. Now, will they enter the top 25 on Monday?

Like I said in the preseason, the most important player for Illinois this season is Meyers Leonard, and he showed why today, as he was the game’s leading scorer with 21.

The 7-foot-1 center was matched up with the Zags’ 7-foot Robert Sacre most of the day. But with two fouls early, Leonard sat for the half’s final 8:39. Leonard made the most of his time when the half ended, scoring 17 as Sacre cooled off and Leonard’s team grabbed the 82-75 upset win.

The Illini used other bigs in coalescence with Leonard, 6-foot-8 junior Tyler Griffey and a pair of freshmen — 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-foot-8 Ibby Djimde — to frustrate Sacre. The fact that they won with this combination is a great sign for Illinois this year. The other bigs stepped up when Meyers had to sit down.

And looking ahead, who has the bigs to shut down ML? Obviously Jared Sullinger at Ohio State, and the Hoosiers with Cody Zeller, but other than that? Trevor Mbakwe for the Gophers, but he’s done for the year.

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; he’s also 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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