Ohio State was upset at Purdue Sunday, reducing its lead in the Big 10 conference to just one game. Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows the Buckeyes will be determined to get back into the winning column against his Illini Tuesday night.
"They're coming off a tough loss against Purdue, who played probably as well as they have all year on the defensive end and then E'Twaun Moore playing a special game. I'm sure they will be hooked up ready to play. The race for them has gotten a little bit tighter, and every game down the stretch is important for them and everybody."
OSU will be a heavy favorite, although there are some factors that weigh in the Illini's favor. For one thing, the Illini seek payback after letting their first game slip away in Champaign. Illini point guard Demetri McCamey has personal as well as team reasons to return the favor in Columbus.
"Definitely. I didn't feel like I played my best that game. I had a couple shots go in and out. I've got to play better. I'm now getting the confidence back and starting to play well. They stole one on our home court, so we have the revenge factor."
For another, the Buckeyes will have a shorter turnaround than the Illini after a Sunday game according to Weber.
"It's a short turnaround for us because we got back very late Saturday night and even tougher for Ohio State to go to Purdue and get back Sunday night. You get one day before you play. I guess they have a little bit of an advantage in that it helps them to be at home."
Neither team wants to lose two in a row. Illini senior center Mike Tisdale expects the Buckeyes to be fired up, but he believes the Illini could be also.
"They're not used to losing. They lost the last game, so they're gonna be motivated. But we have a lot of motivation as well. Nobody expects us to win, so we're going in with the mindset we're gonna give it all we've got and hope for the best."
Illinois has lost a number of close games due to poor shooting and mistakes near the end of games. Tightness due to a fear of losing has no doubt contributed. But since the Buckeyes now have Purdue right on their tails for the Big 10 championship, perhaps they will be a little tighter as well.
Weber tried to get his troops to relax prior to the trip to Michigan State, to no avail. But if there was ever a game the Illini could relax and throw caution to the wind, this is the game.
"There's no doubt," Weber agrees. "I told them I don't know of anyone in the country that expects Illinois to go to Ohio State and win. Especially after they lost to Purdue. We have to just go and play basketball and put a little pressure on them."
Buckeye freshman post player Jared Sullinger dominated the Illini first time. He has done that to everyone this season, including Purdue Sunday.
"Sullinger had 25, 9 for 14 and 7 of 7 from the free throw line. You know he's gonna get points. You don't want to let him get 40, but you've got to make sure the other guys don't get going."
It is those other guys Weber knows are the glue to this OSU team. Seniors David Lighty, William Buford, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale are all excellent players in their own right, but Weber explains they are completely unselfish and care more for winning than individual glory. They set an example he wishes his own seniors would follow more closely.
"You've got to guard Sullinger the best you can, double him a little bit and come from weakside to help. But you also have to be careful not to let Diebler, Buford or Lighty to get going. Those guys are so dangerous. They can go for big games, and then you're really in trouble.
"You've got to give kudos to Lighty and Diebler and Buford and Lauderdale. They just seem to want to win. Where everybody's worried about the NBA and individual things, they play poised. You've got to give credit to those guys.
"Lighty may have big games scoring, but a lot of times he guards the best player, he plays 40 minutes, he rebounds, he gets assists. He just does so many things. They play to win. Lauderdale is a great case. He knows his role, plays it. They're into winning, and that's why they're 25-2 and lead the conference."
Add freshman point guard Aaron Craft to the mix, and they have a formidable team. Craft has played far beyond his years and has earned the respect of the upperclassmen.
"He brings toughness, just amazing toughness for a freshman," Weber says admiringly. "He doesn't back down to anyone, doesn't care if he scores a point. That doesn't mean he's not gonna take a shot here or there, but he just runs the team, guards the best people, gets them into their stuff. He's been a very unselfish, poised freshman with great toughness. He's definitely a key for their team."
McCamey knows all about him, having been stifled by Craft's tenacious defense first game.
"He's a little pest. He plays pretty good defense. He's just a tough, hard-nosed guy. He reminds me a lot of (Chris) Kramer of Purdue last year. I've got to do a good job of running him off screens and not trying to beat him off the dribble as much. Work off the ball a little bit more."
Several Illini have struggled recently. McCamey is getting his confidence back, but fellow guard D.J. Richardson is still mired in a funk that affects his play on both ends of the court. Since he relies on Richardson to defend the opponent's best guard, Weber is baffled by the turn of events.
"It's been a really tough stretch for him. He's made a couple shots in a few games early, and you think he's gonna be okay. He just doesn't get involved. He plays very tentative.
"I thought he played a very good defensive game against Michigan. Lucas (Kalin, Michigan State) is tough to deal with. He's about as quick as anybody in the country. But I think D.J. wasn't cut in right from the get-go. He was back on his heels.
"If he doesn't get or make shots, he still can help us by defending and being a lock-down guy. He's got to realize that and accept that and feel good about it. It's human nature, they all want to score. I think it's affected him mentally, and he just can't get himself out of it.
"Part of it though is our whole team. He needs open shots. Our whole team needs to move the basketball so he gets open shots. It's gonna help him, it's gonna help Mike Tisdale, even a Mike Davis with the short 8 to 10 foot shot.
"But he's got to be tougher and stronger mentally. He did it against (Talor) Battle a couple games a go. He did it against (Darius) Morris the other night. But he didn't have the mindset he needed to at Michigan State."
McCamey is good at parroting Weber's mantras. Hopefully, he applies the lessons and brings his best game Tuesday night.
"There's no pressure for us, all the pressure is on them. Nobody is picking us. We need to keep in our fox hole and try to compete. We've got to do the small things. A box out here, a stop there. We didn't do that in our last road game, and it cost us the game."
Tisdale gets the defensive assignment on Sullinger. He has his work cut out for him as his teammates will be preoccupied by all the other great Ohio State players on the floor.
"It's always fun playing against the best players. It was a good matchup last time. He played well and shot a lot of free throws, so we've got to limit those."
Weber needs a great effort from his team to earn the upset.
"We're gonna have to do a great job on the defensive end and not give them easy baskets. When Buford goes off, it's very tough to deal with him. And Sullinger is gonna get his points.
"And somewhere here, we've got to shoot the ball well. That's the one thing I was so disappointed at Michigan State. If we're gonna have any chance, we're gonna have to shoot the ball. And maybe someone jump up and be special like E'Twaun Moore was Sunday.
"We need a Mike Tisdale to go 5 for 5 and make a couple threes or something. I'm just using him as an example. You know, Billy Cole come in like he did against Iowa and jump up and make a couple threes. Somebody make a shot clock play. We've got to make some shots to ease the pressure on our defense because they're so hard to stop."
In addition, the Illini need to find a way to be strong and confident late in games. Davis describes the situation well.
"They're a good team. We had them down 8 points here and let it slip away. So we know we can play with them. We've just got to execute down the stretch. When it comes to the tough part of the game and the crowd gets loud, we've got to play even harder. And then hit a couple shots to get us over that hump."
Easier said than done, but hope springs eternal.