Buckeyes Shooting For Upset Of No. 1 Illinois

Ohio State hung with Illinois for a half on Jan. 5, but eventually lost 84-65. This Sunday in Columbus, the Buckeyes will attempt to upset the Fighting Illini and spoil their undefeated season. Here is a preview.

Last season, Thad Matta's Xavier team knocked then-No. 1 St. Joseph's from the ranks of the unbeaten late in the season.

This year, in his first season at Ohio State, Matta will attempt to achieve the same feat against No. 1 Illinois.

The Buckeyes (18-11, 7-8 Big Ten) will host the Fighting Illini (29-0, 15-0) Sunday at noon at soldout Value City Arena.

Matta watched Illinois' 84-50 rout of Purdue Thursday evening, which made for some restless hours following the game.

"I slept like a baby," Matta said. "Woke up every two hours and starting crying."

That was a small joke, but Matta is not kidding when he says that Illinois is one of the best college teams in recent memory.

"Make no mistake about it, we're playing the best team in college basketball," he said. "Of all the games I've watched and all the games I've coached in, I think this team – I used to think Arizona was the best team I've ever coached against back when I was at Butler and they had six pros on the team – but I think this Illinois team is a different animal. They are more guard dominant, they shoot the ball, they do a great job of sharing the basketball. I think they've got a sense of pride they are playing for in being undefeated. Make no mistake about it, we've got a tremendous challenge in front of us."

All of Illinois' starters average double figures in scoring.

The lineup includes: 6-3 senior guard Luther Head (16.2 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, 3.8 assists per game), 6-0 junior guard Dee Brown (14.2 ppg, 4.7 apg), 6-3 junior guard Deron Williams (12.8 ppg, 6.7 apg, 3.6 rpg), 6-6 senior forward Roger Powell (12.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and 6-10 junior center James Augustine (10.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg).

The top three players off the bench include: 7-2 senior center Nick Smith (3.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg), 6-10 senior forward Jack Ingram (3.8 ppg, 2.8 ppg) and 6-3 sophomore guard Rich McBride (3.1 ppg).

Matta says that his team won't practice any harder because they are playing America's best team.

"We try and prepare the same for everyone," he said. "Just because we're playing the No. 1 team in the country, undefeated, that doesn't change our preparation and how we go about preparing for a team. Obviously they probably have more things that you have to prepare for, because they are such a good team, but our mindset won't be any different than it was Wednesday night at Iowa (a 74-72 OSU loss)."

Illinois doesn't just have good players, it has a good system. Second-year head coach Bruce Weber has done a fine job getting all the talent playing well together.

"I love the way they play," Matta said. "I think they really exemplify team basketball. I think they are very sound defensively. The play very hard defensively and they generate points off their defense. I'd say that 95 percent of the coaches in college basketball would say, ‘Boy, that's a great basketball team, I love the way they play,' as I do."

Sunday will mark the final game in Value City Arena for OSU seniors Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Matt Marinchick and Tony Stockman. They have all experienced ups and downs during their college career, but have a chance to go out with a big victory.

"It's the last three home games for our three seniors and that always means a lot to me," Matta said. "Especially with these guys and what they've given us. And what they've given up throughout this season. I want those guys to have the best day they can possibly have."

Matta is not sure if he will insert all three seniors into his starting lineup.

"I don't know," he said. "I haven't decided yet."

Ohio State junior center Terence Dials continues to be the go-to player for the Buckeyes. He is averaging a team-best 16.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.

However, in Illinois's 84-65 win over OSU in the Big Ten opener on Jan. 5, Dials had just seven points and six rebounds.

"Yeah, I think when we went over the first game, Terence didn't play particularly well," Matta said. "He was in foul trouble at honestly a crucial part of the first half. I think that – and I say this every week – we need Terence to play well in order to have a chance to win. His performance Wednesday night (29 points, nine rebounds) was just a great effort."

If you are going to try and pick a weakness for Illinois, it might be lack of muscle in the post. But that is even a stretch with two quality players such as Powell and Augustine patrolling the paint.

"But I go back to – and I hear what you're saying because I've heard people say it – but I recruited James Augustine out of high school, and I think he and Powell are tremendous basketball players," Matta said. "I think both guys have a chance to continue on playing. So, I guess it would be a weakness with the three guards they've got, but boy would I like to have that weakness."

* Stockman says that the Buckeyes gained some confidence from their first meeting against Illinois, even though they lost by 19.

"In the first game, I think we did good in the first half," Stockman said. "In the second half, if we would have made a couple more shots and stuff like that, we would have stayed in the game."

Stockman does not think the Illini will overlook the Bucks.

"I think they're going to be ready to go, to finish it out," he said. "I'm sure they want to go undefeated. That's probably a goal of theirs. So, I think they're going to be ready to go. I don't think they are going to look past us or anything like that. I think it's going to be a big game to go undefeated for the regular season."

Believe it or not, Stockman thinks that offense will be the key against Illinois.

"They've got so many weapons and different guys stepping up in different games," he said. "I think what it's going to come down to is – we're not going to stop them – so we're going to have to make plays on offense and try and just contain them a little bit. But it's going to come down to us making plays."

It could be a great way to go out for Stockman and the rest of the seniors. Packed house, No. 1 team in the country and a chance to pull off a big upset.

"That's a little extra for us," Stockman said. "Senior night is going to be special anyway, but to play a team like that puts a little more on us and it's going to be exciting and fun. Big crowd and stuff like that. It will be enjoyable."

* Fuss-Cheatham also believes that offense will be the key to beating Illinois.

"You have to step up on defense, but in order to beat them, you have to make offensive plays," he said. "You have to score. Regardless, they have so many players that are great passers and so unselfish that any guy can put up 20 points. So, I think in order to beat them – you have to make plays on defense – but you have to score. You have to put the ball in the hole against them.

"For us, we would love for it to be a low scoring game. But I don't think with their type of team a low scoring game is going to cut it. I think for us to beat them, we're going to have to outscore them."

Fuss-Cheatham couldn't have written the script much better for his last home game.

"I think it's great," he said. "This is what we all want. As a senior, you always want to go out with a bang. This would probably be the best scenario I can think of t go out with a bang. It's definitely going to be a challenge for us, but I think our guys are ready. (Illinois) is definitely going to come into the game ready, and I think our guys are definitely going to be ready for the game too. I think we're pretty excited about it."

Fuss-Cheatham's mother passed away earlier this season and it will be tough on him not to see her in the stands on Sunday.

"It's going to be a pretty sad moment, I think," he said. "This is going to be my last game in front of the home crowd and it's kind of sad. I really enjoyed playing here for four years. I think it is definitely going to be sad, especially with some of the stuff that I've been through. I wish there were some people that could be at the game, but obviously they can't. It's going to be sad, but also it's going to be a new start for me too. I've got to move on and the team's got to move on. But I'm definitely going to give it my all on my last game. Leave it all out there and make sure that everyone else leaves it all out there. It would be a nice little feat if we could do it."

Fuss-Cheatham wants to be a basketball coach in the future.

"I still have to finish school, so it's hard to try to coach when you're still taking classes," he said. "So, I still have basically another year of school left. But obviously through this next year, I'm going to be trying to get my networking out there and try and get my name out their for coaching. That's been my goal to be a coach."

High school, or college?

"Probably college," Fuss-Cheatham said.

* Marinchick has provided some decent minutes off the bench this season. Like the other seniors, he thinks Sunday is a great opportunity to go out in style.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "The No. 1 team in the nation, packed house, one last time in the Schott. Illinois is a great team. For me personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. To play the No. 1 team in their last game of the season – we're still going to the Big Ten – but this is exactly how I want it."

Marinchick could be asked to give Dials a rest here and there on Sunday. Dials played the entire game against Iowa, but might need a breather going up against Augustine all day.

"Yeah, that's possible," Marinchick said. "I don't know what Coach Matta has planned, but I'm sure whatever he has planned will work out for the best. If he has me coming in to play for a little bit, I'm just going to go as hard as I can for as much time as he wants me in there."


* Matta was asked if he knows anything about new OSU athletic director Gene Smith, or if he has any connections to Smith.

"No, I don't," he said.

Matta was asked what he would like to see in a new AD.

"A new AD," he said. "A supporter. A guy who understands Ohio State. And honestly, I'm still learning my way around Ohio State."

Matta was asked if he thinks he will have to audition for the new boss.

"Uh, yeah," he said. "I've got strong faith in what we've done, but we're always looking to get better. That's one thing that we do when the season ends as a staff, sit down and say, ‘How do we make our players better? How do we make our program better? How do we make ourselves better coaches? That's something that always makes the team better the following year."

* The Illinois-Ohio State game will be televised nationally on CBS.

* Ohio State is 14-2 at home this season and 13-2 in Value City Arena. Ohio State is 3-1 at VCA vs. the Illini, including a pair of victories over ranked Illini squads.

* The Buckeyes are 8-0 against ranked Big Ten teams at VCA when the facility is sold out. In all games, the Buckeyes are 13-4 against ranked Big Ten teams at VCA, including a 2-1 record vs. Illinois.

* Overall, Ohio State is 130-212 all-time against ranked opponents and 54-106 against Top 10 teams after facing No. 1 Illinois earlier this season (1/5/05). The Buckeyes fell to 6-9 vs. No. 1 teams following the loss to the Illini, breaking a four-game win streak vs. top-ranked opponents.

* With Illinois being No. 1 nationally, it will mark the first time a No. 1-ranked team has played in Value City Arena. The highest ranked teams to play at VCA were No. 3 Illinois and No. 3 Michigan State in 2001. Ohio State beat both teams that year, downing the Spartans 64-55 Jan. 27 and handling the Illini 63-61 Feb. 22. In all, Buckeyes have faced four Top 10 teams in Value City Arena and have a 3-1 record in those games. The only loss was a 69-68 setback to No. 9 Kansas Dec. 23, 2000.

* The last No. 1 team to play in Columbus was Indiana in 1993. The Buckeyes won that game on Feb. 23 in St. John Arena 81-77 in overtime. Ohio State is 3-3 overall in Columbus vs. No. 1-ranked teams. The Buckeyes have played the No. 1 team twice in the same season three times: Michigan in 1965 and Indiana twice in 1975 and 1976. The Buckeyes split with the Wolverines and fell both times to the Hoosiers in 1975 and '76. In all six Ohio State victories against No. 1 teams, and in 14 of the 15 total games vs. No. 1, Ohio State has entered the game unranked. The No. 6 Buckeyes fell to No. 1 UCLA 79-53 Dec. 30, 1971 in Los Angeles.

* Dials passed the 1,000 career point plateau with 20 points against Wisconsin Feb. 27. He has 1,039 points for his career after a 29-point effort at Iowa last Wednesday. He became the 42nd player in Ohio State history to score 1,000 career points in an OSU uniform. The last player to reach 1,000 points was Brent Darby during the 2002-03 campaign. He finished his career with 1,368 career points, good for the No. 20 spot in OSU career scoring history. Dials is 39th on the career scoring list behind Jamie Skelton (1991-94) and Ken Johnson (1998-2001) at No. 37, each with 1,055 career points.

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