CHAMPAIGN – Have you noticed that since new athletic director Mike Thomas let football coach Ron Zook go, Bruce Weber’s Illini hoopsters are unbeaten?
No. 24 Illinois knocked off Coppin State 80-63 on Sunday. With the victory, the Illini improved to 10-0, their best start since they won their first 14 games in 2005-06.
‘‘To be 10-0 obviously is nice,” Meyers Leonard said after his second career double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists). ‘‘Along the way, we’ve learned a lot, which is good. But we certainly haven’t gotten there yet. We want to be a special team, a great team – not just a good team. We’ve had some quality wins. But we have to keep getting better.”
The Illini, who needed to rally after being down nine to St. Bonaventure on Wednesday, again showed their youth and inexperience against the Eagles (3-5).
‘‘I told them I was proud of them, 10-0,” Weber said. ‘‘But we still have a long way to go. This is an important stretch. We have to get ready for UNLV and Missouri. If we don’t start making some strides, things can go the other way.”
Up 54-37 with 14 minutes to go, Illinois allowed Coppin State to close to 59-57. With 7:32 left and Illinois still up by two, Leonard and 5-9 Coppin guard Taariq Cephas received technicals for some fairly mild extracurricular activity.
Leonard responded from there, though. The sophomore center scored eight points and had an assist as Illinois answered with a 13-3 run that gave it a 72-60 lead with 3:15 left.
D.J. Richardson tied his career high of 20 points to lead the Illinois scoring. Sam Maniscalco and Tyler Griffey each had 12 points. Tony Gallo, a 5-11 guard, had 21 for Coppin State.
An Assembly Hall crowd of 14,811 gave a warm halftime welcome to Zook’s successor, Tim Beckman.
After urging fans to support the Illini in the Kraft Bowl in ‘‘20 days” and in their 2012 opener vs. Western Michigan in ‘‘265 days,” Beckman said, ‘‘I look forward to building a Big Ten champion here at theUniversity of Illinois.”
Beckman said he’s offered the offensive coordinator job to Toledo assistant Matt Campbell, 32, the Rockets’ interim coach. Campbell is a strong candidate to become Toledo’s head coach.
Beckman said he expects NCAA approval of a waiver Monday that will allow Illinois to have two staffs this month, one to recruit and one to coach the bowl game, like Ohio State: ‘‘They’re doing it in Columbus. We ought to be able to do it in Champaign.”
Beckman also plans to meet Monday with Zook’s defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, Illinois’ interim coach for the bowl game.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Koenning stays.
The biggest cheer of the night, though, might have gone to former Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson and his wife, Mary.