Illinois endured an emotional letdown in Champaign on Valentine's Day, allowing the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes an easy win. The Illini have been running a gauntlet of outstanding teams to conclude the regular season. Six of their eight foes were ranked in the Top 15 when they played them, and all 8 were ranked in the Top 25 at one time or another.
For some, a trip to Columbus would be a form of torture after that murderer's row of opponents. But the Illini remain hopeful. After all, they most likely will play better than in their first meeting, and the Buckeyes may not shoot as well. The Illini were embarrassed by the outcome and want to make amends. And they are working hard to prepare for OSU's 1-3-1 zone defense and hope to figure it out by game time.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber provides a formula for attacking the zone.
"If you make a few shots and get off to a good start, they may get out of it. Some of it is the attack. In the first game, we weren't even in the right spots. We watched that just to show them.
"Hopefully, some of the execution's got to be there. Then maybe you get some inside touches, short corner shots. And then if you make a three, it makes a big difference."
What makes OSU's zone so effective?
"I think it's the length of Evan Turner on top, even (Jon) Diebler's long on the wings, the athleticism of (David) Lighty and (William) Buford to get to shooters," Weber describes. "And then (Dallas) Lauderdale being the shot-blocker. If you get by their perimeter guys, he makes it tough to deal with."
Of course, the Buckeyes use a man defense far more this year, thanks to outstanding athletes at all five positions. Getting them out of the zone may be no blessing, but it would give the Illini a confidence boost. If there is one thing this Illinois team needs more than anything, it is confidence. Weber hopes the zone problems will make them more determined than ever to overcome it.
"I hope they pay attention better to the details, not just give into threes. I think it might help us be more prepared. We've had two failures the last two weeks against it, so it would be helpful if we had a sense of urgency on how to attack it."
Weber knows how to beat zones. He just has to find a way to get his players to follow the game plan.
"I think it's passing. You get it from side to size, you get inside touches, go inside outside, attack the boards. Plus, we've got to push the basketball. When we start walking it up, it helps the zone.
"The first thing you've got to do against a zone is push the basketball. Attack it before it can get set and then get it moving and disoriented so they can't get in their positions.
"With their length, it makes it a little tougher to get it side-to-side. You have to do lob passes, and that allows them to react much better."
Of course, the Illini team lacks naturally confident players to face Ohio State toe to toe. They need early success in games to play their best. Weber realizes there is much to play for and plenty of tension to overcome. But he knows his Illini are not favored, so he hopes they will play with nothing to lose. Junior co-captain Bill Cole explains.
"I think he wants us to play carefree and not uptight worrying about making the tournament. If you worry about those things, you might get uptight. He wants us to play hard but play loose and go in there with a passion, a fire about us."
Cole says the team knows what to do to attack and defeat a zone. It's a matter of focus and efficiency.
"We've got to exploit areas of the zone, the keys to being zone busters like the high post, the short corners. You've got to swing the ball a little more and obviously hit shots. It's tough to beat a zone when you're not shooting well. I think we'll execute better against Ohio State. Couple that with good shooting and we can beat them."
Of course, Ohio State is so good because they are strong at all five positions. Led by junior superstar Turner, a likely NBA lottery pick, the Buckeyes have size, length and athleticism that makes any defense effective.
The other part of the formula for winning is stopping the Buckeyes, and that is tough for the Illini as they have had defensive weaknesses all year. According to Weber, there is no one they can slough off to help elsewhere.
"It is a tough matchup. They have so many weapons. Basically, you've got to guard them straight up. And then you've got a great player who can do so much. You cannot gimmick to defend them because they have so many weapons."
But that won't matter if the Illini can't score. Point guard Demetri McCamey would like to find out if the Illini can beat OSU's zone, but it starts with proper positioning.
"I feel like against Minnesota and Ohio State, no one was in their right positions. So we don't know if our offense will work or not. It would be good for us to be in the right positions."
With all the emphasis on attacking zones, it must be remembered the Buckeyes scored often in Champaign off transition. D.J. Richardson knows the guards must get back on defense to prevent easy hoops.
"We've got to do a better job of getting back in transition, stopping their fast break."
Whether intentional or not, Richardson may have revealed the biggest problem for the Illini this season. While bragging about the play of McCamey, he admitted the following:
"When everyone is shooting well, the team looks pretty good. When our leader Demetri isn't shooting good, I think our whole team doesn't shoot good. We need him to have a good game for us to be successful."
That is a big burden for one man. But the other players simply don't play with confidence when McCamey is on the sideline or not playing well. Everything revolves around McCamey. WIth his high school buddy Turner at the point of the 1-3-1, McCamey must beat his multi-talented friend for the Illini to win. That will be no easy task.
Illinois is capable of pulling the upset. But it is impossible to predict which Illini team will show up. One way or the other, they have to play the game. Weber says they might as well try to win.
"All season we've made it hard on ourselves, and we've kept up with that trend. We've been consistently inconsistent. You've just got to go play. We got ourselves in this predicament, we've just got to lay it on the line. It's not gonna be easy."