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Illinois a few plays from elite status

There was the 16-point halftime lead that the University of Illinois basketball team coughed up against Utah.

That was the beginning, the opening clue that the Illini need another year.

That was followed by a five-point lead kicked away against Bradley. Leads in the second half were also handed back against Gonzaga, Purdue and Northwestern.

Bruce Weber, the Illini coach, has watched those videos once, twice, a million times. He can give you better play-by-play than Joe Buck.

"I've got to watch the videos right away (on the ride home)," Weber said. "I've got to understand what went wrong. We should have two or three more wins. Just careless stuff."

Weber stops. When he begins to stir through more memories, you can hear the pain percolate in his perpetually raspy voice.

"Against Northwestern, we're up eight with about 14 minutes to go and we stop them six straight times," he said. "Six straight -- and we don't do anything to expand the lead. We've got three fast-breaks, and we get nothing. Charge. Turnover. Missed layup. It's tough."

Tough? Absolutely.

The Illini are 14-8 overall and should be 16-6.

But they could be ... well, use your imagination.

You can only imagine the damage those meltdowns have done to Illinois' computer rankings (currently No. 77 in the RPI) and chances to return to the NCAA tournament. You can't be surprised there is howling on message boards and talk radio.

The fact is, Weber's team has considerable work to do over the next 5½ weeks.

But when you start to make your list of teams to fear in 2011, don't forget Illinois. Don't forget a team that figures to return its top five scorers and top five rebounders.

Don't forget a team that has one of the Big Ten's leading juniors, Demetri McCamey, who hit a chilling game-winner against Indiana last weekend.

Don't forget a team with a formidable freshman class led by D.J. Richardson, who is shooting the ball so comfortably (42 of 93, better than 45 percent) from the 3-point line that he's looking like an upperclassman.

And don't forget that Weber, a guy knocked for his ability to recruit from the moment that Eric Gordon made his unexpected U-turn back to Indiana, has assembled an incoming class that Scout.com ranks as the nation's sixth-best.

There's Jereme Richmond, a sky-walking, 6-6 wing from Waukegan, Illinois, who just missed a game last weekend after he was suspended following an altercation outside the school. Scout.com ranks Richmond a five-star prospect. Weber might give him six or seven stars.

Richmond committed to Illinois as a freshman, during the time fans were howling about Gordon.

Richmond had chances to abandon Illinois. Plenty, but he didn't.

"Jereme gave us something to start with, and then he stuck with us," Weber said. "He's a very loyal kid."

Some analysts are more intrigued by Meyers Leonard, the slender 6-foot-10 center Weber recruited out of tiny Robinson, Ill. (with a population of 6,822), tucked on the Indiana border in southeastern Illinois.

Don't forget Crandall Head, the younger brother of 2005 Illini starter Luther Head. He's trying to return from a torn ACL to finish his senior season at Rich South High School.

It's the kind of class that Illinois hasn't had since Deron Williams, Dee Brown and that gang were around.

And you know what people say about them.

That Weber coached the Illini to the 2005 NCAA final against North Carolina, but that Bill Self was responsible for assembling the talent before he bolted for Kansas.

It's similar to the background noise Tubby Smith encountered after he won the 1998 national championship at Kentucky with primarily Rick Pitino's players.

The only point that Weber wants to make about the 2005 team is to make certain Williams, Brown, Head, James Augustine and Roger Powell get credit for making Illinois a basketball brand Midwest kids still embrace.

"Absolutely," Weber said. "The kids we're recruiting now were in junior high when that team was here. They remember how special they were."

Powell, Brown and Augustine play overseas. Head is a reserve guard with the Indiana Pacers. Williams was named to the Western Conference All-Stars, representing the Utah Jazz, this season.

"Those guys have been great," Weber said. "All of them have been, especially Deron. He created his Point of Hope Foundation and put together some Illinois hoops legends games. Deron gets it. He gives back."

And Weber and Illinois intend to stop giving back leads and get back to prominence.

Soon.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Courier-Journal. Check out his blog here .