Mike Tisdale came to Illinois as a slender 190 pounder with skills but no strength. Now a senior, he is up to 250 pounds and is much stronger than in the past. He gained a great deal of confidence practicing against the USA team last summer, and he is ready to play this season at a higher level.
Humble as always, Tisdale downplays his mental and physical growth since last season.
"The opportunity I've had to play against guys, work on my skills definitely helps."
Tisdale has also struggled in the past with running the floor and being in top condition to bang with large post people all game. One might think gaining the weight would slow him down. However, he ran a 5:38 mile recently, quite an accomplishment for someone who had trouble breaking 7 minutes as a freshman.
Recent shin splints might also have raised a red flag in past years. But the young giant has recovered nicely from that temporary setback.
"My legs are feeling good. In fact, the other day I ran probably the best I have run all year."
The 7'-1" Riverton product can't hide his enthusiasm for the upcoming season.
"I'm excited. I don't think I've ever been this excited. The way we've been working, the attitude we've had, even Coach (Bruce Weber) is smiling more. I think it's because we're real focused and want to win.
"Everyone's been working hard, and I think it's gonna show. If we continue to do that and focus more on defense this year, we're gonna be tough to beat."
Coach Weber has been emphasizing defense and fast breaks in early drills. Tisdale has struggled with both in previous years, but he is adapting well now.
"I think we have the ability. I think the team has the attitude right now that anything we've got to do to win we'll do. I think the older guys are working the hardest they've worked, and the young guys are learning.
"We'll emphasize defense. I think that will be our focus for the rest of the year. And fast breaks and stuff like that is what we have to do."
It hasn't been easy for Tisdale to wrestle with mammoth post people in the past. His slender frame would get pushed out of the way easily. Now, he knows how to utilize his strength and size to advantage. The battles he has in practice with freshman 7-footer Meyers Leonard are gargantuan at times. Tisdale wins most of those battles.
"Playing against guys my size is something I've got to do all year. Doing it every day in practice helps a lot. He's a strong boy."
Tisdale schools Leonard daily, in large part because of his vast experience playing the college game. But he has no doubt Leonard will someday be a great player in his own right.
"He's young. He's athletic and strong, but the basketball part he's got to improve. He's got to learn. I think he has all the talent in the world. If he continues to learn, continues to soak in everything that I'm trying to show him, Coach is trying to show him, next year and even this year he can be real, real effective. Once he gets the skills down he'll be pretty unstoppable."
Besides having a chance to be a nationally prominent team capable of going a long way in the NCAA Tournament, Tisdale sees another benefit to the makeup of the Illini this year.
"I think practices will be a little shorter this year. We'll be focused, and Coach won't have to hold us an extra long time doing the same stuff over and over.
"That's the key, being ready for practice, being coachable. Listening to what he says and competing. That's gonna be important."
If Tisdale keeps improving, he has a chance for a long career in the NBA or overseas. And if the team keeps on improving, he has a chance for a championship ring or two.