A new look for the Illini

Brandon Paul has been a big part of Illinois' hot start this season. AP Photo/Jed Conklin

Illinois was unranked in the preseason and projected to be a mid-tier Big Ten team. So it came as something of a surprise when the Illini raced out to an undefeated start, capped off by a big win over Gonzaga.

"There are how many undefeated teams in the country now?" Illinois' head coach asked after his Illini had defeated the Bulldogs. "Somebody's got to notice."

Of course, the coach who made those comments wasn't John Groce. It was Bruce Weber. In 2011.

This season the Illinois Fighting Illini were once again unranked in the preseason (and did not receive a single vote in the AP poll) and projected to be a mid-tier Big Ten team. So it has come as something of a surprise that Groce's team has jumped out to a 12-0 start, capped off by a big 85-74 win over Gonzaga in Spokane.

Now, entering their annual Bragging Rights game against Missouri in St. Louis (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2 and WatchESPN), the Illini are ranked No. 10 in the nation. But the eerie similarity of this team's last two early-season runs begs the question: Could last season's collapse happen again?

Anything can happen, of course, but the evidence suggests it's unlikely that Illinois will repeat its miserable run from last February and March. Let's take a closer look, not only at just how bad things got in Champaign last season but also at how this current team measures up in relation to this season's top contenders.

More than a collapse, an implosion
When Brandon Paul walked off the floor last season having scored 43 points against Ohio State, Illinois was 15-3. From that point forward, however, the Illini went 2-12. The fact that one of those two victories came against an eventual NCAA tournament No. 1 seed (Michigan State) helped mask the severity of this team's decline -- but not for long.