Ohio State (11-2) travels to Champaign Wednesday to take on the No. 1 team in the country, Illinois (14-0).
"This is a great challenge for this team," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "From watching Illinois, I agree, I think they probably are the best team in college basketball right now. They've got so many avenues to hurt a team, both defensively and offensively. So, this will be a great opportunity for us to go over there and see what happens."
The Fighting Illini are loaded with talent and they're deep.
Senior guard Luther Head is their leading scorer at 16.2 points per game.
The Illini also have a strong bench – led by 7-2 senior center Nick Smith (4.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Despite all of that talent, Ohio State is anxious to see if it can pull the upset.
"Honestly, I'm looking forward to seeing how we will come out and play," Matta said. "It is a conference game and I think the fact that they are No. 1 in the country and undefeated makes it a unique situation for us. I know that we haven't done real well over there the last couple of years, but we're just going to go over and play the game and see what happens."
Matta was asked if he thinks his team has gotten tougher over the last month.
"I do," he said. "I always start at the defensive end, I think we've shown that we can get some major stops when needed. But, obviously we have not played a team the caliber of Illinois. A team that shoots the ball as well and they do and has the depth that they have. But, I think our team has gotten better from a month ago and that's what we're constantly trying to strive for. I think our rebounding has improved, which will be a tremendous key in tomorrow night's game."
Matta is a native of Hoopeston, Ill. However, he did not grow up rooting for the Illini.
"No," he said. "I was more Indiana, Purdue. Just because – I actually lived closer to Purdue by like five minutes – Indiana had a guy from my hometown that played there and was a freshman in '76, so I just obviously jumped on the bandwagon there."
Matta played at Illinois when he was in high school as part of the state tournament, but has not returned since.
"Yeah, I think that's the last time I've been in Assembly Hall," he said.
It will be a tough test for the Buckeyes, but if they have to play the No.1 team in the nation on the road, Matta is glad they can get it over with now.
"Yeah, no question about it," he said. "You can definitely scratch this one off the list. But seizing the opportunity, this should be a fun challenge for our guys."
How could Ohio State pull off the upset? Illinois has looked nearly flawless this season.
"Well, I think you have to play very intelligently," Matta said. "I think they're a team that has the capability of just scoring in bunches. You just have to try the best you can to combat the runs and make it as hard as you possibly can for them to score."
One plus for the Buckeyes is the recent strong play of Terence Dials. He is coming off his third consecutive double-double and is currently averaging a team-best 16.3 points and 8.5 rebounds.
Of course, going up against Augustine and Smith will present a new challenge for Dials, but Matta thinks it's a good matchup for OSU in the post.
"You know, I like it," Matta said. "I think T had a good game last year against them here. Obviously they know that he's playing well, but we're going to need Terence to play really well in order to have a chance to win."
Surely Matta has had this game circled for quite a while. (Well, he hasn't, and don't call him Shirley.)
"Honestly, no," he said. "I don't think our margin of error is big enough for us to ever look past an opponent. I honestly didn't think about Illinois until after the St. Joe's game.
"The fact that they are No. 1, that is more for the fans and that sort of thing. For us, it's about going in and trying to do what we can do. And that's something that Illinois is great at. They take teams out of their stuff."
What would a win over the No. 1 team mean for OSU's program?
"Well, it would mean we were one-sixteenth done with the Big Ten," Matta quipped. "It would be a tremendous win. I haven't seen a lot of college basketball, but they are playing better than anybody in the country right now with the way they're talking care of the ball, the way their shooting the ball, the way they're defending. So, it would be a heck of a statement if we were fortunate enough to do that."
* One player who is always confident and will never back down from anything is OSU junior swingman J.J. Sullinger. He is looking forward to taking the court with Illinois.
"Even though they're a great basketball team, we know we can beat anybody," Sullinger said. "That's our mindset going into this game. We've just got to play our system. Play the way we play, and do it the Ohio State way. And if we do it that way, we've got a pretty good chance."
Sullinger is glad the Buckeyes have this opportunity.
"Playing the No. 1 team in the country, we wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "It's a challenge and we're looking forward to it."
With the Buckeyes banned from postseason play this year, games like this are their biggest games of the season.
"We actually have to treat every game like it's the postseason," Sullinger said. "We only have a certain amount of games this year. We're not going to get anything extra, besides the Big Ten Tournament. So, this is definitely one of the biggest games of the season for us, knowing that we cannot make it to the postseason."
The Buckeyes are currently ranked 20th in the RPI. When the players look at that, they can't help but wonder what might have been if they weren't on probation this year.
"Yeah, because if we keep being successful like this, we probably would have made the (NCAA) tournament," Sullinger said. "But, you know, you can't look at that. You can't cry over spilled milk. Right now, we're just concentrated on being better as a team and keep on doing the things we do. Keep doing things the Ohio State way."
Sullinger knows Assembly Hall is a hostile environment.
"Man, it's a tough place," he said. "I remember last year was my first crack at it. It's a tough place. They've got good crowd support; they're always crazy and jumping up and down. They respond to it real well. They like playing at home. But, we like playing too, so it's going to be a good game."
Illinois had its way with OSU last year in Champaign, but Sullinger is not worried about the past.
"We're not scared at all," he said. "You can look back on that game, they were up on us early, but we came back. I haven't thought too much about it. We just have to do what we have to do."
There are many reasons Illinois is so good, but it starts in its backcourt.
"They've got good guard play," Sullinger said. "They're causing a lot of turnovers. They get out in transition. They like to run ball, run the floor. They've got real good players and they're well coached. But, I think so are we. We've got a good coach, we've got a good system going on. Any given time on any given night, anybody can beat anybody. So, we're just looking at it as another game. We're not looking at it like, ‘Can we win?' We're looking at it like, ‘We're going to win.'"
Sullinger was asked what it would mean to OSU's program to beat the No. 1 team in the country.
"It would be great," he said. "I've had a couple chances to play Illinois – even at Arkansas – and I didn't win. So, it's about time I got one. So, maybe (Wednesday) night will be the night."
Sullinger outlined the keys to victory for OSU.
"We're definitely going to have to take care of the ball," he said. "They like to get out and run and it always starts with their defense. They're causing a lot of turnovers. They're getting a lot of steals.
"I think their guards produce something like 60 percent of their scoring, so we definitely have to slow them down a little bit and try and limit their open looks, and really just do what we do. Play defense, block out, rebound and run when we can, and when we can't, run our half-court offense. That's pretty much what we're going to do. That's the game plan."
* Point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham is also not concerned with what happened in the past between OSU and UI. He is just glad he has another crack at the Illini.
"With new coaches, our concepts and all that are different," Fuss-Cheatham said. "The way that we want to handle pressure, the way that we want to defend them is a little different. So, this is a totally different year, totally different team and our guys are really looking forward to it."
Fuss-Cheatham says the Buckeyes will have to be physically and mentally tough to pull off the upset.
"Yeah, this is going to be a game that is all about toughness," he said. "You've got to be tough with the ball, and you have to be tough as far as taking good shots. They're going to force you to try to take bad shots, because that's the way their defense is designed.
"For them, they are a team of runs. They can jump on you 10-0 quick, because that's how they play. But I think if you can stop their runs and have some runs of your own and hit key shots and just taking care of the ball, I think we should be fine. Just stopping their runs and having our own runs."
Fuss-Cheatham says Brown is one of the top players in the conference.
"Dee Brown, he is probably the fastest guy I've ever played against," Fuss-Cheatham said. "Obviously they call him ‘The One Man Fast Break' and he's definitely that guy. He's up and down the court. But I think our game plan for this game is going to be different. We're going to try and stop all the transition. So, there might not be as much offensive rebounding as we would normally try to get. We might only send two guys to the boards instead of three.
"So, with Dee Brown, he's a guy that starts their fast break. He's their energy guy. He likes to get the crowd into it. He likes to talk a lot of stuff, too. I mean, this is fun game. If you're a guy who is a player… if you're a basketball player who has skills on the perimeter, this is the game you want to play in, so you should be excited."
As Matta eluded to, defense will be the key for Ohio State.
"Yeah, this team (Illinois) puts up 80 points a game, and 40 percent of their points are in transition," Fuss-Cheatham said. "Easy baskets. They've got three guys on the perimeter, and their four man shoots threes. And makes threes, not just shoots them. So, this is definitely a game that going to be keyed on our defense. Stopping the ball early is going to be important. Make sure they don't just get easy shots. Every shot has to be contested.
"But this is an all-around game. You've got to have both offense and defense to win this game. You can't just play one side of the ball, but definitely slowing down their transition will be a big key for us."
Fuss-Cheatham only has 16 regular season games left in his career and he's ready to get rolling. Illinois is an 18-point favorite over OSU, but the Bucks are anxious to prove everyone wrong.
"Very excited to begin Big Ten play," he said. "I think our first three games are against the top three teams, which is, I don't know that I would say great, but it's definitely a challenge for us. We are excited to get things underway and it's good that we have competition right away. You can learn a lot, and if you do get a few of these games, maybe you're ready to have a great season.
Notes: Ohio State has a 6-8 record against teams ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press men's basketball poll. Ohio State has not faced the No. 1 team in the country since the 1993 Big Ten season when the Buckeyes downed No. 1 Indiana 81-77 in overtime on Feb. 23. That game was played in Columbus. The last time Ohio State played a No. 1 team on the road was at Iowa Jan. 24, 1987. The Buckeyes won that game 80-76. Ohio State has won its last four games against No. 1-ranked teams. The Buckeyes have been unranked in each of those wins. … Overall, Ohio State is 129-209 all-time against ranked opponents and 54-105 against Top 10 teams. … This is the 93rd season of Big Ten membership in men's basketball for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 51-41 (.554) in conference openers, 62-30 (.674) in league home openers and 35-57 (.380) in the first road game of the season in Big Ten play. Ohio State has opened Big Ten play on the road 40 times and has a 17-23 record in those games. … The 11-2 start to the 2004-05 season is the best since Ohio State began the 2001-02 campaign 15-2. … Tickets for Ohio State men's basketball remain on sale for all Big Ten Conference home games at Value City Arena. The Buckeyes will host eight league foes beginning with the University of Iowa at noon Saturday. Tickets range from $13-$18 and can be purchased online at ohiostatebuckeyes.com or by calling 1-800-GO BUCKS. The Ohio State Athletics Ticket Office hours of phone operation are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. The remaining men's basketball home schedule is as follows: Jan. 8 Iowa Noon; Jan. 19 Minnesota 8 p.m.; Jan. 26 Penn State 8 p.m.; Feb. 2 Purdue 8 p.m.; Feb. 5 Michigan 12:15 p.m.; Feb. 15 Indiana 7 p.m.; Feb. 27 Wisconsin 2 p.m.; March 5 or 6 Illinois 12:17 or 2 p.m.