A Great Deal on the Line

Both Ohio State and Illinois have a lot to play for in Sunday's regular season finale.

Illinois head coach John Groce returns Sunday to Columbus for a game for the first time since leaving Thad Matta's staff in 2008.

Groce spent four seasons as an assistant at Ohio State, with the stint providing special moments on and off the court. The team played for the national championship in 2007, and Groce's first son, Connor, was born at the campus hospital.

"Obviously I've spent a lot of time in the state, not just there. That was a great part of our lives," said Groce, who left to lead Ohio University following the Buckeyes NIT Championship in '08. "We've got a lot of friends there."

Groce downplayed his return to Columbus. After all, coaches go through many such circumstances and Groce's FIghting Illini defeated his mentor's Buckeyes handily Jan. 5. Still, the return will undoubtably provide for moments of positive reflection for Groce, who has Illinois positioned for the NCAA Tournament in his first season in charge. He'll certainly relive some good memories and shake hands with friends from the past, but said, "once the ball tips, then at that point it's a game and you've got to coach a game and make plays and players have to play with some toughness. That part doesn't change."

Sunday's matchup marks the regular season finale for both the Illini and Buckeyes, two teams on different tracks as of late.

The Fighting Illini (21-10, 8-9) have lost two of the last four and looked less than ideal in wins against Penn State and Nebraska. Most recently, Illinois lost on the road at Iowa, it's 55 total points it's lowest since a late January loss to Northwestern.

"I think we were ready," senior Tyler Griffey said. "We guarded them really well, we just couldn't do anything on offense. Nothing was clicking on offense. We've just got to do better. The offense has to run better than that."

Groce said he was particularly disappointed in his team's toughness and execution. Despite the offensive woes, Illinois trailed by two with less than four minutes to play. From there, the Hawkeyes reeled off an 11-0 run to secure the win, a point that stood out to Groce.

"You've got to find ways this time of year," he said. "You've got to grind it out. That was one of those games the other night."

The loss in Iowa City led to an extended film session, where the staff showed the players the entire game and keyed on mistakes made. Griffey called it was "more of a teaching film session," than most, while fellow senior Brandon Paul said the study was necessary for the future.

"It was a longer film session, and it was something we needed," Paul said. "Coach really got after us, and I think it was something that we definitely needed. We're going to get better from it and we're still learning."

Meanwhile, Ohio State (22-7, 12-5), ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll, is on a four-game winning streak, including wins over No. 4 Michigan State and No. 2 Indiana.

The Buckeyes, who lost to Illinois 74-55 in Champaign Jan. 5, still have a shot at a share of the Big Ten title. A win Sunday and an Indiana loss to Michigan would pull the Buckeyes even with the Hoosiers, accomplishing a feat that didn't seem achievable in early January after the Illini dismantled them.

"They're a better team, a different team," Griffey said. "We're going to be ready for them."

Groce said Ohio State is playing better because each player on the roster has continued to improve as roles have been defined. Leading scorer Deshaun Thomas and all-around threat Aaron Craft have continued playing at a high level, but according to Groce the contributions of Lenzelle Smith, Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and the rest of the supporting cast has pushed the Buckeyes back to the top of a talented list of Big Ten teams.

"Their defense has been tremendous and as you look at the numbers real consistent throughout the year," Groce said. "I think they've defended really well. … I just think they've continued to improve. They just keep getting better and that's a big reason why they're playing well now."

While Ohio State is competing to keep title hopes alive, Illinois has plenty to play for, too. A win Sunday secures the 7-seed in the Big Ten Tournament and sets up a first-round matchup with Nebraska, a team the Illini have beaten twice already. A loss means the No. 8 slot and a game against Minnesota -- the two teams split in the regular season, each winning on the road.

"Right now we're still trying to win games," Illini senior D.J. Richardson said. "That's the main thing right there. We've got a game coming up against Ohio State and we're trying to win that one to get some confidence going into the Big Ten Tournament."

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