It’s not that the Fighting Illini have fallen on hard times; quite the contrary. However, after finishing in the top two of the Big Ten in each of Bruce Weber’s first six years as head coach, the relative regression for Illinois has been evident. In fact, the last four seasons for the Illini has brought a conference record of 35-37. Hardly awe inspiring.

But it hasn’t been for lack of expectations, as Illinois has been consistently ranked in the preseason top 25 over the past decade. The problem has been fulfilling those expectations in the past few years. In fact, the Illini haven’t made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2006.

The result has been restlessness among the fan base in Champaign, who had become quite used to the deep runs in March and dreams of national championships. First and second round exits have begun to raise questions about Weber’s effectiveness and his ability to consistently keep the Illini at the top of the conference.

What they’ve done so far:

Unlike past seasons, this season brought lower expectations for Weber’s crew. Coming off a 9-9 season in the Big Ten and losing four of its five starters from last year, Illinois barely registered in the AP voting before the season and was expected to be a middling team in the conference. The reduced expectations, though, have brought somewhat inspired play, as Illinois used a win over Gonzaga to propel itself into the Top 25 and gave top-10 Missouri all it could handle in a four-point neutral-court loss.

In fact, the only slip up the Illini have had so far was a 64-48 drubbing at the hands of a sneaky UNLV team (and one that already took down then-#1 UNC). As it stands right now, the Illini look like a solid, if not unspectacular, Big Ten team. They haven’t been world beaters yet but have taken care of business when necessary and showed they can beat a respectable team like Gonzaga. Hanging with Missouri on the road also showed that they aren’t outmatched by top programs.

Who to watch:

The biggest personnel story for the Illini this year will be how DJ Richardson rebounds from a down year last season as a sophomore. The 2010 Big Ten co-Freshman of the Year, Richardson regressed a bit last year and saw both his scoring and playing time dip from his first-year totals. In order to succeed, the Illini will need Richardson to be a consistent veteran presence and elevate his game to build on the achievements he made a freshman. So far, he hasn’t disappointed and leads the team in scoring at 14.5 ppg while shooting 41% from long range going into conference play. Can he keep it up? Given that he has the most talent on the team, much of Illinois’ success will lie in how Richardson can perform.

Meyers Leonard is also a guy to watch for Illinois. After a forgettable freshman season, Leonard is putting up huge numbers in his second year and is second on the team in scoring while leading the team in rebounds. A 7-1 center, Leonard has the potential to take over games with his size and turn into the focal point of the offense. Coupled with Richardson, Illinois has pretty scary tandem on paper.

Also worth monitoring is the presence of Sam Maniscalco, a graduate transfer from Bradley who takes over starting point guard duties. While not a huge scoring threat, Maniscalco is a gritty, experienced point guard playing in his fifth season and he knows how to get the job done. He doesn’t turn the ball over but does have the offensive skills to put up big numbers (as evidenced by his 24 points against Maryland).

What to watch for:

We’ve already thrown out the DJ Richardson story line, and seeing how he continues to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore campaign will be interesting to watch. The growth and consistency of Leonard will also be instrumental to Illinois’ success. Richardson and Leonard have the potential to be a worrisome inside-outside threat that most teams will have trouble matching up with.

The bigger-picture story will be to see how Illinois responds to reduced expectations this season. Having not entered the season with much fanfare, not a whole lot is expected of them, which is different than past seasons. Will that cause teams to overlook the Illini rather than prepare for them? Not likely, but teams won’t be circling the matchup on their calendars either.

How they’ll do:

Losing four of five starters is hard for any team to overcome, but the Illini bring back a potentially scary inside weapon in Leonard, a legitimate backcourt scoring threat in Richardson and added a savvy D-1 veteran in Maniscalco, so it’s not like they are left with a bare cupboard. Given Richardson’s play so far this year, it’s hard not believe that he’s turned a corner in his junior season, and Leonard already looks to be a nightly double-double threat. While the Illini are not as intimidating as they were six years ago, this is a team that will sneak up on people during conference play. I peg the Illini as a sleeper Sweet Sixteen team.