Meyers Leonard went from nervous to confident because of a trip overseas with USA Basketball for the under-19 World Championships in Riga, Latvia.

CHAMPAIGN -- Meyers Leonard went from nervous to confident because of a trip overseas with USA Basketball for the under-19 World Championships in Riga, Latvia.

When first speaking to Illinois coach Bruce Weber about the opportunity, "I was nervous about this,'' Leonard said Wednesday, one day after his return. "I didn't want to go at first. That's when I realized I have to be good in order for us to be good.''

A sophomore this fall, Leonard will compete with incoming freshman Nnanna Egwu for playing time at center, where the Illini have questions over scoring in the post and defending the paint.

More expectation falls on the shoulders of Leonard, who probably received a hint -- and some motivation from Weber -- during that offseason heart-to-heart chat months ago.

Sounds like Weber planted an idea in Leonard's ear about his worth to the Illini's chances next winter.

"He told me, but he didn't tell me,'' Leonard said.

Like his Illini teammates, Leonard said, he is more coachable and working harder this offseason.

"There's more of an understanding of hard work, listening to coach and better attitudes this year than last year,'' Leonard said.

The U.S. team finished fifth in the World Championships following a disappointing loss to Russia in the quarterfinals of the medal round. Leonard averaged 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds in the nine games, finishing strong by averaging 11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in the final three games.

Said Luke Winn of si.com of Leonard: "Apparently he struggled early in the tournament, but while I was present -- and especially in the U.S.' final three games -- he was the best big man on the floor, hustling for blocks, rebounds and buckets in transition. If he can bring that energy to Illinois for 20-plus minutes a game next season, he'll be one of the breakout players in the Big Ten.''

Meanwhile, center Jonas Valanciunas, taken with the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft in June by the Toronto Raptors, led Lithuania to the title by averaging 23 points and 13.9 rebounds.

After a weekend home in Robinson and several trips to the Mexican restaurant there, Leonard will return for more summer work with Egwu.

"He can really shoot the ball (more) than I thought and he's a lot stronger than I thought,'' Leonard said. "He's physical, and he never stops running.''

NOTES: Illinois will hold four practices within the next week before scheduling five more practices in August prior to the exhibition tour through Italy in August.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.