Illini's Leonard shooting high in 2012 NBA Draft

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Illini's Leonard shooting high in 2012 NBA Draft

His college resume is thin to say the least, but at 7-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Meyers Leonard's NBA hopes aren't as slim as you might think.

The draft is short on centers, which bodes well for the former Illini big man who has already drawn interest from several NBA teams. The most logical spot for Meyers to land is Milwaukee at No. 12 since the Bucks need to replace Andrew Bogut, whom they traded to Golden State in March.

But, depending on how things shake out, Leonard could land in the Top 10. You figure UConn's Andre Drummond and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller will go first, leaving Leonard as the third center available, and if a team really wants a big man, they may take a reach with the Big Ten's leading shotblocker.

Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle told me at the NBA Pre-Draft camp Thursday that Golden State was very high on Leonard and might take a flyer on him as a back-up to Bogut. It's hard to believe the relatively inexperienced Leonard would go seventh, but after talking to several people at the combine, I'm starting to think anything is possible.

The downside to Leonard, of course, is his lack of maturity on the court in terms of basketball skills and mentality. At Illinios, he was prone to emotional outbursts at times, which led to run-ins with head coach Bruce Weber, but Leonard insists he's grown-up and learned a lot from his two years in Champaign.

"With Coach Weber, they just wanted me to be the best I could be," explained Meyers who spoke to Weber the night before the combine. "I appreciate the way they pushed me to be the best I can be. I don't think the word immaturity or emotionally unstable is right at all. Most people know I'm willing to work hard. I'm just going to continue to prove to people that I've matured."

Leonard might be able to convince NBA coaches he has the right mental makeup to play in the NBA, but most think he's still a project. It's one more label Leonard has had to deal with, but this one doesn't rub him the wrong way.

"I don't take it hard, everyone has their opinion," said Leonard. "Everyone can get better at the game. I take it as they see potential in me. It's not a negative comment, I understand I have to come to the gym and get better and develop."

So Leonard is putting in the time, working out three times a day, eating right and getting his rest. And, the Robinson, Ill., native is extra motivated to fulfill his NBA dreams for family reasons to help finance medical care for his mother who suffers from health problems and to make his brother, who just returned from serving a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, proud.

"The first day I walked in the gym, a guy asked me what my motivation was. I said 'my mom and being able to help her is a heartwarming feeling,'" said a determined Leonard. "And my brother is in California finishing his duties. I have so much love and respect for him."

Leonard is hoping the good feelings continue come draft day. He should go in the first round, projected by most to be taken in the 20s, which isn't bad for a kid with so little experience or national recognition. For Illini fans, he'll become the first NBA draft pick out of Illinois in seven years and the first one recruited by the departed Bruce Weber.

Yes, first round for Leonard sounds pretty good. But, if something magical were to happen for the 20-year old on June 28th, he could become a lottery pick (the first one for the Illini since Deron Willams went third in 2005).

And, that sounds even better.

Sunday on CSN: UIC travels to Valparaiso

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Sunday on CSN: UIC travels to Valparaiso

Horizon League basketball returns to CSN on Sunday as UIC travels to Valparaiso. This game tips at 2:00 p.m. live on CSN.

The Flames (11-8, 4-2) have won three straight games and have played pretty good ball after the loss of Dikembe Dixson to a torn ACL. Junior big man Tai Odiase, a Homewood-Flossmoor graduate, is playing well along with former St. Rita product Dominique Matthews.

Valparaiso (15-4, 5-1) is hoping to maintain its conference lead behind senior All-American candidate Alec Peters. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 23.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per game on the season.

The Crusaders won the first time these two teams played at UIC on Dec. 30 as Tevonn Walker had 23 points.

Saturday on CSN: Loyola, Illinois State host Missouri Valley opponents

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Saturday on CSN: Loyola, Illinois State host Missouri Valley opponents

CSN will have two Missouri Valley Conference games with local teams on Saturday. 

The first game tips at 3 p.m. live on CSN as Evansville heads to Loyola. The second game tips at 7 p.m. and is also live on CSN as Drake will play at Illinois State.

Loyola (13-7, 3-4) is coming off of a tough road loss in double overtime to Northern Iowa. The Ramblers have been led by senior Milton Doyle this season as the former Marshall star is one of the better guards in the Valley.

Evansville (10-10, 1-6) has dropped five straight games as they're struggling to gain any momentum in conference play. Senior guard Jaylon Brown is having an outstanding season for the Purple Aces as he's putting up 21.2 points per game.

The second matchup has Drake (6-13, 4-3) traveling to Illinois State. The Bulldogs have won three of four games and junior guard Reed Timmer is dangerous while former Saint Viator product Ore Arogundade is having a solid sophomore season. 

Illinois State (15-4, 7-0) is leading the Valley after a huge win over Wichita State as they've won eight straight games. The Redbirds are hoping to make a run to an NCAA tournament bid with another home win.