The small-town kid has some growing up to do. The best thing, coach Bruce Weber said, is he understands that now.

 

 Meyers Leonard arrived as a small-town kid with a big ego, but the 7-foot-1 center's self-esteem took a big hit last season.

"He went from all the talk and hype before last year to being as low as you could be -- lower than a snake's belly,'' said Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber during media day Tuesday.

In his second season with the Illini, the Robinson native might not be grown up, but he's growing up, Weber said. That's an important thing for a program that lost seniors Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole along the front line, who combined for 27.4 points and 16.1 rebounds, and guard Demetri McCamey.

While a concern heading into the first practice Friday remained at point guard because of transfer Sam Maniscalco's cranky left ankle, there's a vacancy inside where Leonard is the sole true candidate, except for freshmen big men Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde -- two players with limited basketball backgrounds.

His role is simple, said Leonard.

"Be a beast,'' he said. "Be a big man. Always run the floor, play defense, rebound. Scoring will come. Just be a standard big man, but with more energy.

"I know I have to be good. Everyone knows I have to be good in order for us to be in contention.''

No predictions on numbers, he said, but "averaging close to a double-double would be nice,'' Leonard said.

Weber was more precise when it came to points and rebounds.

"He's got a be a 10-10 guy,'' he said.

Leonard has the tools. The athletic 240-pounder has the broad shoulders, agility and speed to go end to end but still has plenty of room to grow in a half-court offense.

"He's as gifted as anybody,'' Weber said.

The biggest learning curve is between the ears. After seeing his name on mock NBA draft lists earlier as a freshman, Leonard averaged just 2.1 points, 1.2 rebounds and 8.2 minutes last season. By the spring when Weber nominated him for the USA Basketball under-19 camp prior to the world championships, Leonard didn't want to go.

"He said, 'I'm not going. I won't make it,' '' Weber said.

Leonard made the team and averaged 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds for the U.S., which finished fifth in the tournament after an upset loss in the quarterfinals.

"The biggest thing he does is he realizes he has to grow up,'' Weber said.

Looking back, Leonard had a lot of growing up to do.

"I thought I'd made it,'' Leonard said. "Coming in and being a top recruit and all that, it was nice. Once I got here, it was almost a slap in the face. I thought I was going to play more. I wasn't mature enough. My time management wasn't good with school and everything.

"You have to do everything right or you're not going to perform like you should.''

The projected starting lineup consists of Maniscalco and guards Brandon Paul and D.J Richardson with junior Tyler Griffey at power forward. The Illini have seven newcomers, including six freshmen who bring athleticism and versatility. Egwu gives Leonard some competition by running the floor. Djimde loves to post up. But Leonard has the most upside on the inside.

"We need someone to come out of nowhere and become a star, a name everyone recognizes,'' Weber said.

If that's Leonard, it would really help the Illini.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.