Illini Face #1 Challenge In Ohio State

The Fighting Illini basketball team faces its most difficult challenge yet as unbeaten and #1 Ohio State visits the Assembly Hall for an 11:00 am game Saturday. The Buckeyes return tremendous firepower from last year and add the preordained Big 10 Freshman Of The Year in Jared Sullinger. The Illini will need a special effort and supportive crowd to win the game.

Expect an electric atmosphere Saturday morning for the battle with the Buckeyes. Illinois coach knows it will be a difficult assignment, but he is looking forward to the opportunity to play the #1 team in the country.

"It's a big day, a fun day. They're number one in the country. It's a great opportunity for our kids, maybe make a statement. It would go a long way. Whether they're number one at the end of the year, they're gonna be in the top ten, top five in the country.

"Most importantly, it will keep us in the race and make it a race, to be honest. If they keep winning, there's not really gonna be a race."

Thad Matta only plays seven players regularly, but anyone of them can beat you on a given night. The Buckeyes have four returning senior regulars in William Buford (6'-5", 205), David Lighty (6'-5", 220), Jon Diebler (6'-6", 205), and Dallas Lauderdale (6'-8", 255). Buford averages 13.7 points a game and shoots over 40% from the three point line while handing out 64 assists in 19 games.

Lighty is scoring at a 13 ppg rate, is shooting .463 from the arc and has 69 assists. Diebler is the new all-time three point leader in the Big 10. He scores 11.5 points a game on 49% shooting from the field including 47% from three. Lauderdale plays fewer minutes and doesn't score much, but he has a strong body for putbacks and defense.

Not to be overlooked are two other exceptional freshmen. Aaron Craft (6'-2", 195) is a developing point guard who is shooting 50% from the field and leads the team with 93 assists. Deshaun Thomas (6'-6", 230) was a high school All-American who is averaging 9.6 points and 4.4 boards as a first line sub.

But the scoring leader for the Buckeyes is freshman sensation Jared Sullinger (6'-9", 280). He averages 17.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and shoots .584 from the field. He uses his big body to create space for inside looks, and he is an immovable force on rebounds. There is probably no one on the Illini team who can stop him one-on-one, and yet you can't double up on him because of his teammates' abilities.

"He is very mature for a freshman," Weber reminds. "He just seems to play and doesn't get rattled. He does what he can do."

Illini center Mike Tisdale will have to defend him some of the time. He has great respect for Sullinger.

"The big guys are gonna be a big factor tomorrow. They have a lot of real good perimeter players, but they're go-to guy is Sullinger right now. He knows a lot about angles. He's not over the top of everybody, but he's gonna seal in certain ways you can't do something about.

"He's a whole different type of guy. He knows the game. He's not the most explosive, he's not the tallest, but he knows what he's doing. He knows how to use his big body.

"We've just got to fight him. He's big, he's strong. We have to use our feet and hopefully outsmart him. It's gonna be a collaborative effort."

When Sullinger and Lauderdale are in the game together, Mike Davis will have to defend the talented freshman.

"I've got to do a good job tomorrow and not let him get a good angle," the slender Davis understates. "If he gets the angle on me, it's gonna be a bucket. If he makes tough shots on me, that's what I want him to do.

"I know he is very talented, but I think I can play with him. He just has a bigger body and knows how to use it. We've got to make him play defense too. Use my athleticism and outrun him down the floor. I'm faster than he is, and I've got to use that to my advantage."

Tisdale reminds the Buckeyes are much more than just Sullinger.

"That's what makes them so good, they are all weapons. Buford, Lighty, Diebler, those guys can score in a lot of different ways. So it's not just Sullinger. But we're gonna have to key on him and hopefully shut out some other guys."

Weber knows how difficult an assignment it is for his Illini.

"It's a very tough challenge. They're a team that's very similar to last year. You replaced one guy with another that can really score for them. From Evan (Turner), who wheeled and dealed, got to the paint, got to the free throw line and created. Now you've got a big guy that can really work down low, kind of an old-school post guy that you don't always see in modern basketball. He is good at what he can do.

"And then when you have the same weapons around him that you did last year, from Diebler who can really shoot the three, to Buford and Lighty who can really create. And then you've really got to give credit to Lauderdale. He is such a good team guy. There's games he plays 12 minutes and doesn't say a word and then comes back next game and plays 25 minutes and is a factor.

"It seems like they're very unselfish. (Michigan) coach (John) Beilein in one of the games said their perimeter guys don't care as much about their shot as they care about getting the best shot.

"I know Sullinger gets a lot of attention, but Lighty creates for all of them. He's such a mismatch; he plays the four sometimes, he's a three, he'll use his versatility and athleticism to create. It really puts you in a bind as a defense, especially when you've got a four matched up with him. They force you to play small ball, but then they've got the big body in there. It makes it tough to do that.

"Everybody's done different things. You try to help, but they've got other guys. He (Sullinger) is still gonna get his. You can't let him get 40, but if you pay too much attention, they've got so many other weapons. Those guys could go off.

"You have to guard him man-to-man. Mike Davis has to stop Lighty when he guards him. But at the same time, we've got to be a good team defense. We've got to have great awareness, and we really have to be active. If somebody's open, we've got to talk and take him.

"The rest of the guys, anyone can guard them. When somebody gets screened or somebody pops and is open, we've got to guard him straight up and do your job. It's tough to stop them. You look at their numbers, they don't push it a lot They just come down and run their stuff, get it to their shooters in the best spots and make plays.

"They don't seem to get rattled. First time they just killed us here last year. The second game at their place, we pushed them and then they made their run. And then we should have won the game in Indianapolis. I don't know if we got better or learned. We'll see if we can make progress here tomorrow.

"They find ways. You say in the League they've been pushed, but they find ways to win games. They have enough weapons, they stay calm and cool and find ways to win. They don't beat themselves. We're gonna have to beat them with good play."

So Coach, what can the Illini do to slow down Sullinger?

"We're probably gonna have to use 15 fouls, from Mike Tisdale to Meyers (Leonard) to Davis to Tyler Griffey. You keep giving him different looks and different people and don't let him get comfortable. In our League, people have tried to make him guard in a variety of ways to make it tough on him and wear him down a little bit. It might help in the long run.

"We've got to keep Tisdale in the game, and he's got to keep his emotions, stay out of foul trouble. He can score. But if he's not in there, or if he's not emotionally with the right mindset, it doesn't help us. It's one thing you hope we could take advantage of, how good a perimeter shooter he is."

Turner was the Buckeye star last year, but it was Diebler's threes and Lighty's ability to penetrate from the wing that killed the Illini last season. Lighty may be the key to stopping Ohio State since he a talented leader. Weber is impressed.

"He's shooting 55% from three, he always seems to get a big rebound, makes a play when they go to him. He called a team meeting, and they watched tape together about their defense. If he's doing those things, that's even more valuable.

"All the stuff you do on the court is one thing. But if you're doing that in the locker room, that's the special leadership you need to have a great team. He's a fifth year guy; he sat out. This is his year, he's mature, he knows what's going on. That's what makes him so special."

From the sound of it, the Illini have no chance. But to a man, the players are looking forward to this immense challenge.

"It's so much fun," Davis admits. "I've never got the chance to play a #1 team before. We've got to come out with the same excitement and energy we did against Michigan State. If we do that and shoot the ball pretty well, we've got a good chance to win."

D.J. Richardson may have to guard everyone but Sullinger and Lauderdale at one time or another. He is looking forward to it.

"It kind of feels like GameDay last year. Just to get a chance to see a #1 team in here, see a lot of players with a lot of talent. It'll be a good experience for us tomorrow."

Brandon Paul believes an upset is possible.

"I come into tomorrow with the mindset we can definitely win the game. We can't take them lightly. But if we come in with the attitude we had for MSU, we can do it."

Demetri McCamey is likely just as excited. But as an upperclassman, he takes a more stoic persona into the battle.

"It's just a regular basketball game to me. Every game to me means so much, but at the same time you're trying to protect your home court. We're trying to be undefeated at home this year to give us a chance in the long run to win a Big 10 championship."

Fellow senior Tisdale admits his feelings about the game.

"It's exciting. It's the first #1 I've played. Getting to do it at home my senior year is exciting. We're going in with the mindset we're gonna win. There's no guarantees, but we have to come out with that attitude."

Despite the early start, the Illini Nation is expected to blow the roof off the Assembly Hall, especially if the Illini can maintain the fight throughout the game. Weber expects the crowd to be an important 6th man.

"I know the (Orange) Krush is gonna meet early. They're gonna open Huff early because it's gonna be so cold, get them ready to go. It's a hot ticket. I think people will be there and be pretty excited about it."

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