Illini seeing improvement in attitude

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois sophomore center Meyer Leonard shook his head when he thought back at how he acted as a freshman.

Leonard's first season didn't go as he hoped on the court, and he admitted he often allowed his anger to boil over.

"I got frustrated last year some with myself, some with the coaches," Leonard said on Tuesday. "I would talk back. I was pretty immature to be honest."

It was an immaturity that was spread across the roster, and one of the reasons why the Illini failed to meet expectations last season, according to Illinois junior guard D.J. Richardson. It's also an area Richardson has seen improvement in as Illinois prepares for its trip to Italy in August.

"It can mess up a team," Richardson said of players' negative attitudes. "We had problems throughout the season last year. We had ups and downs.

"I think we have a different type of players. We have more guys who really want to do something with their future, guys who really love basketball. It's a different mentality for everybody. Everybody is on the same page."

The Illini graduated four seniors from last year's team and freshman Jereme Richmond left early to enter the draft. This year's team will include seven newcomers, including six freshmen.

One of the biggest differences Richardson has seen has been the energy during open gyms and practices. Tuesday marked the fourth of 10 practices the Illini will hold before playing in Italy.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm," Richardson said. "We got more energy in practice. People are jumping up and down, bumping chests. Every practice has been competitive. Every day in open gym has been competitive.

"The last couple years it would have taken Deron Williams, Dee Brown to come to our open gym to get the gym excited. It's a whole different environment. We get after each other. Everyone's competing. You see people getting mad and throwing the ball after each game they lose, so you know it's really competitive."

Illinois coach Bruce Weber wouldn't throw last year's group under the bus, but he hoped his current players learned from his past players' mistakes.

"I think this whole group is coachable," Weber said. "I think the other guys ... it was misconstrued they weren't coachable. I think they had limitations. They could only do so much with strength and physicality.

"I think maybe that extra discipline, that extra toughness, that extra work ethic, maybe they learn from the others. I tell them all the time to learn from past experiences, from others' experiences, their failures, so you can have success."

Illinois senior point guard Sam Maniscalco, who transferred from Bradley, felt the team's practices had been positive so far and was optimistic they would stay that way.

"It all comes down to attitude," Maniscalco said. "If you have the right attitude about wanting to be coached, wanting to be better, wanting to reach your potential, and [the coaches] help you on the way, success is on the way."