Lou Henson, the winningest coach in Illinois basketball history, will be honored with his name unfurled to the rafters of the Assembly Hall Tuesday evening. It is a special night, and everyone hopes Ohio State doesn't spoil the party. But the Buckeyes are heavy favorites and have a superstar in Jared Sullinger.
Illini coach Bruce Weber says they are extremely talented despite losing Jon Diebler and David Lighty to graduation.
"We have a big challenge against Ohio State. You still have the main three with Sullinger, (William) Buford and (Aaron) Craft. When you're putting a program together, they always say to get a point guard that understands how to play and will run the show. And try to get a big guy. They have established a good start with those two guys (Craft and Sullinger).
"And then you have Buford, who they say may become the all-time leading scorer in Ohio State history. So that's pretty impressive.
"Besides those three guys, the key to their success is (Deshaun) Thomas. He's improved so much. He's a major factor, a mobile four guy that is very athletic. He can get to the basket, he's shot the three-ball pretty well. He really spreads defenses."
The sophomore Sullinger (6'-9", 280), who will likely play many years in the NBA, is a man mountain and practically unstoppable in the low post. He leads the team with 17 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. He's hitting .609 from the field and has deposited five threes as well.
Buford (6'-6", 220) scores at a 15.4 rate and leads the team with 25 arc shots. He is also second on the team in assists. Sophomore Thomas (6'-7", 225) is a scoring threat outside and in, averaging 14.8 points a game.
Sophomore Aaron Craft (6'-2", 190) runs the show to near perfection. A tenacious defender who often shuts down whomever he guards, Craft is dynamite at setting up teammates for open shots. He enjoys better than a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and averages 7.8 points. Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the other starter. The soph plays a subordinate role, doing the little things all teams need.
Seven other Buckeyes will likely see time in the game. Junior transfer Evan Ravenel (6'-8", 260) is the other upperclassman. Sophs J.D. Weatherspoon (6'-6", 215)and Jordan Sibert (6'-4", 185) are joined by freshmen Sam Thompson (6'-7", 190), Amir Williams (6'-11", 220), Shannon Scott (6'-1", 180) and LaQuinton Ross (6'-8", 225). Ross is a standout just rounding into playing shape after sitting out the first half of the season.
The Illini must find a way of slowing Sullinger to have any chance Tuesday. He owned them last year, his bruising style pushing defenders out of the way for easy layins. Weber says teams have tried every defense imaginable on him, with little success.
"I'm not sure there is a good approach because you have such other good weapons. He has such great poise. He gets it, takes his time, makes the pass. They swing it. If not (a shot), they get it back to him and make you do it again. That's where he has the great poise.
"Last year, we went one-on-one most of the time. We told our bigs, if they were there they could go (double-team), but they had to be close. That's where Thomas makes it tough because he's at the top of the key and hitting 36% from three. It's a tough thing to run all the way down there.
"But there are certain situations and plays where you could go. You've got to try to dig if you're close, see if you can disrupt him. But the biggest thing is, you just can't let him get in a rhythm. If he gets in a rhythm, he's very tough to stop."
Illini center Meyers Leonard can match up athletically, but he gives up 35 pounds of solid muscle. He has experience going against Sullinger in the past and hopes he has learned his lessons well.
"Jared's a great player, one of the best bigs in the country. It'll be a great matchup for me. I've got to come out focused and ready to play, see what I can do.
"People say he struggles with long, athletic guys. I played against him at LeBron, I played against him on the AAU circuit and against him a little bit last year. He knows how to use his body well, and he's good at drawing fouls. He's very skilled.
"With the athleticism I have, and my length, I can maybe give him some trouble. I can use my feet to get around him instead of banging his body. Using my length if he tries going over the top, and trying to outsmart him.
"He knows the game very well, and he knows how to use his body. If he gets me under the basket, it'll be tough. I need to work for position on both ends of the court. It should be a great matchup. We'll see what comes with it."
Always looking for teaching moments, Weber is using Sullinger as an example of how Leonard can improve, especially on the offensive end.
"I asked what Sullinger's greatest aspect was as a freshman. He said this and that. I said, 'It was his poise because he had to deal with so many people doing so many things against him.' That's why he was successful. Those are things Meyers can get better with.
"If he (Leonard) just posts up deeper, they're not gonna be able to trap him. Now he's gonna get it so deep, he's just gonna make the shot. He kind of gives in, and that's where Sullinger is so good. Sometimes you don't have a chance because he gets you so deep. He just catches and shoots."
Besides Sullinger, Weber must also decide how to guard the other players on the floor. The Illini have had success recently with "small ball", but putting Joe Bertrand at the four could be a disadvantage against Thomas.
"Can he match up with Thomas? That's the big thing. Thomas is out because Sullinger is in, but they do run some sets to get it to him. Joe got hurt a little bit against McCray (Toney, Nebraska) a couple times in the second half. Thomas is a little bigger and stronger than McCray.
"We feel like we can't do it for 40 minutes, but hopefully for part of the time we can. And then you're picking your poison. Would you rather have Sullinger with the ball in the post or Thomas? That's what you've got to decide.
"They're a very good rebounding team. If you go small, it's gonna be a factor. If you play small ball with Thomas, you're gonna have to box him out. He's actually got more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds.
"They feed Sullinger, he dives, there's a post trap, and he's just sitting there on the weak side for the missed shot. He's smart; he knows it's going up, and he's in position."
Ohio State makes effective use of its lengthy bench.
"I think the bench five through nine has been solid for them. Whether it's Lenzelle Smith or the big guy coming in, Weatherspoon, Sibert or Thompson, they rotate those guys 6-10 minutes to fill in.
"They have been solid; each one has given them something. Lenzelle Smith has shot it well when he gets his chance. Thompson jumps and gets dunks, Amir Williams gives them another big body. So a variety of guys that give them some good solid depth."
While the OSU offense might not quite match last year's dynamo, the defense may be improved according to Weber.
"Their defense seems to be better at this point. Last year, they could score with anybody. They had so many different weapons. This year they have very good scoring. But maybe the difference if you're comparing the two is their defense has been very good, along with rebounding.
"So they're effective offensively, they guard you pretty well. And because of their defense and rebounding, they're able to get into transition. It makes it a tough task, but Indiana got them with Sullinger. He got in foul trouble."
Illini fans have been disturbed by a lack of offensive execution by the Illini, even booing their last first half possession last Saturday. They are winning ugly, but they did it Saturday without starting point guard Sam Maniscalco and with starting two guard D.J. Richardson unable to shoot due to a stiff wrist.
Weber knows the fans are frustrated, but there are explanations for those with ears to hear. Illini fans may have wanted a blowout against Nebraska, but any win was special from Weber's perspective.
"I'll be honest, those were masterpieces last week. You guys have no idea. Saturday I drew up two plays in the huddle, and I had to erase it three times. One guy couldn't catch, one guy couldn't shoot, and the other guys didn't know what was going on because they haven't played those spots. To find a way to win, I think it was unbelievable for our guys.
"Turnovers hurt us first half, and part of that was Nebraska is a little more aggressive (than Northwestern). You've got a freshman point guard. There was a time we had three freshmen on the court at one time, Nnanna (Egwu), Myke Henry and Tracy (Abrams). And they were all seniors and juniors.
"I know we struggle offensively, but part of it is Joe's playing a position he never did. Tracy is playing a position he hasn't played for 30-some minutes. He's played it, but he's still learning. It's the most difficult spot in college basketball. It's all new to Meyers too, to be the star, to be a guy they're looking to take away. I was thrilled to win those games, to come back, grind it out and find a way to win it."
Of course, that level of play won't suffice against the Buckeyes.
"Do we have to get better? Heck yeah. And it's got to be fast, by (Tuesday) night."
Maniscalco will not play, but Richardson may be able to help some.
"D.J. has been in the gym shooting, which is positive because he couldn't do warmups on Saturday before the (Nebraska) game. So you've got to feel by 8:00 pm (Tuesday) night, he should be able to get back in there and feel pretty good about himself. Have some confidence to step up and make some shots."
Leonard believes the Illini have a chance to pull an upset.
"It's gonna be a big game for us. I definitely think we have a chance to win. We've got to execute our game plan and come out hard. They're a great team."
Brandon Paul will be assigned the task of defending Buford, but he will also see time against Thomas, Craft and the other perimeter scoring threats. He knows a win must begin with solid defense.
"Every game we've played so far was a big game for us. We hope to use our home court as an advantage. We have to come out and guard. We can't just think we're gonna outscore them, we have to guard. At the same time, we have to run our offense and get good shots."
Weber used a pertinent football reference when asked what it will take to win the game.
"We need a Bronco win. We need a (Tim) Tebow experience."