By the end of the day on January 23rd, Ohio State and Illinois were 4-3 in the Big Ten and coming off tough losses. Now, they will play for first place in the Big Ten. It's been quite a turnaround for two of the hottest teams in the country.
The Illini and Buckeyes have swallowed up what looked like an insurmountable three-game lead for Michigan State. Now all three are tied for first place in the Big Ten at 9-3, with the winner of the Valentine's Day game between the Illini and Buckeyes remaining atop the league.
Both Ohio State and Illinois have won five straight since losing on Jan. 23 -- the Buckeyes blew a big lead before falling to West Virginia that day, while the Illini lost on the road to Northwestern.
Since then, the Buckeyes have feasted on the Big Ten's cupcakes while Illinois has posted enormous wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin in consecutive games. The victory at the Kohl Center snapped Wisconsin's 18-game home winning streak, along with its run of 51 consecutive wins over unranked conference opponents.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber realizes the difficulty of the situation.
"We have another tough challenge coming up with Ohio State, who I think is the most talented team, a physically gifted team of the group we're facing. Especially their starting five. They have so much versatility with so many guys who can score."
The OSU starting five is tremendous. Junior point guard Evan Turner (6'-7", 205) is a sure-fire All-American. He is averaging 19.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and almost 6 assists a game. He also leads the team in turnovers, but he more than makes up for it in other ways.
Sophomore guard William Buford (6'-5", 190) scores at a 14.2 clip while also helping out on the boards. Junior David Lighty (6'-5", 220), who missed last year with injury, was once considered a superior prospect to Turner.
Junior Jon Diebler (6'-6", 205) is the all-time scoring leader in Ohio high school annals and shoots threes at a tremendous .433 rate. He and Lighty both average 12.4 points a game. And senior center Dallas Lauderdale (6'-8", 255) may not seem that large, but he has extremely long arms and excellent leaping ability. He is hitting .768 from the floor.
The starting five garner most of the minutes, but senior point guards Jeremie Simmons (6'-2", 170) and P.J. Hill (6'-1", 165) plus senior big man Kyle Madsen (6'-9", 240) can burn you if you don't take them seriously according to Weber.
"Hill has been a starter. Simmons has been a starter. Madsen is an older guy that knows what he is. If you get it to any of those guys for open shots, it really puts you in a bind. If they can get something out of those guys, they're gonna be a handful for everyone."
Still, the straw that stirs the drink is Turner. He missed 6 + games with a broken vertabrae but healed quickly and is performingly admirably.
"He has gotten better from last year," Weber acknowledges. "I think he might be taller, he's definitely stronger, he's older. I don't think he had a great USA basketball experience, and he took it as a challenge to prove his game. I think he's done that.
"And then when you throw in the injury, when a life experience happens like that, you realize that basketball can be taken away. Now when you come back you appreciate it more, and you work harder. He works hard anyway, but he has taken it to another level.
"When you add that all in, it makes him very difficult to guard. He's a forward, but yet he's a point guard. He has good ball handling and passing skills. We had success with him last year with Chester (Frazier), but Chester was one of the best in the country. His quickness, how strong he was and how prepared he was all the time, he knew his opponents.
"Now we have no Chester, so it's gonna have to be by committee. Different people give him different looks, just keep him out of a rhythm."
Turner and Illini point guard Demetri McCamey were friends and teammates at St. Joseph's of Westchester. Both are now point guards leading their respective teams, so some are emphasizing that matchup. But they probably won't go up against each other much, and either would be making a mistake by taking the game personally.
"I'm sure if it starts I will have a talk with him," Weber reminds. "There's a chance that will happen, but as soon as it gets going we'll be sure we talk to him. I just hope Demetri understands why he is having success. He's just been solid.
"He's understanding the game better, he's getting it to the right guys when he isn't open. He's passing when somebody else is open. He's made shots, but I think his forced shots are less and less as the season goes on. I think he'll be excited, but let's hope he still goes back to why he's had this run."
McCamey looks forward to the contest.
"It's gonna be tremendous playing against somebody you grew up with since the age of 11. But at the same time, it's gonna be Illinois versus Ohio State not me against Evan Turner. We will go out and try to have fun, try to play Illini basketball and get a win."
McCamey says the Illini will defend Turner by committee.
"Since he's playing point this year, we can't deny him the ball. We've got to limit his touches and contest every shot. Good players like that are gonna make their moves. You've just got to make sure you contest it and try to make it as difficult as possible for him."
Bill Cole will also take a turn guarding Turner, and he admits it will be a difficult assignment.
"They've got so much talent, but it's gonna be hard not to key on Evan because he starts what they want to do. He's such a great passer as well as a scorer, it's hard not to focus too much on him."
Emphasis on Turner at the expense of the others will most certainly backfire according to Weber.
"Buford has been on a roll. We can't let some of those other guys go for big games. Evan's gonna get his. He's been pretty consistent getting the solid numbers every game. But if we let Buford, Lighty or Diebler get 16-18 points, then we're gonna be in trouble."
Illinois center Mike Tisdale has great respect for Lauderdale.
"He has good timing and long arms, he's athletic, he's very strong and he blocks shots. I've played against him before though, so we'll see how it goes. He's definitely one of the strongest and most athletic big men in the Big 10. It's gonna be a good challenge."
In the recent past, Ohio State has been predominately a zone team. But Buckeye coach Thad Matta has the athletes to run man-to-man this year according to Weber.
"They are more of a man team. The last two years it's been pretty much 40 minutes of zone. They don't have the length, the shot blockers although Lauderdale does block shots. It's not quite what they had with (B.J.) Mullens and a couple other guys. Maybe he just thinks he has better quickness, better athletes, older.
"But I think they're an aggressive man-to-man team. After timeouts they may switch to a 1-3-1 zone if the other team gets on a run to disrupt you a little bit. That's where they're trying to use the length they have. They're putting Evan at the top of it, Lighty has some length, Buford has some length for a guard."
Tisdale knows the importance of a top effort against the Buckeyes.
"We want to win. We're in the race for the Big 10 right now, and we want to win it. My teammates and I all want rings, so we're gonna do everything we can to hopefully get that.
"I think we might be hitting our stride at the right time. We're playing pretty good basketball. If we keep improving, the sky's the limit. If we win out, we will win the Big 10. That's our goal."
"A win would be huge. It would give us the confidence to let us compete for the title. It would prove a point to people who said we couldn't deal with our schedule down the stretch."
Counting Ohio State, the Illini have six more conference games, and they are all difficult. They have made progress toward securing an NCAA berth, but there is still a long way to go.
"We were in the bubble, then we were outside the bubble, and now we've got to get in," Weber reminds. "Some of the national guys said after the Wisconsin win we're in, but slow down. We have to still win games. That's the most important thing.
"We have to focus on continuing improving. If we improve, we're gonna win games. If we compete for the Big 10 Championship, then I think we're in great shape. If we win games, we won't have any worries. But we have a long way to go, in my mind."