No. 19 OSU To Host No. 10 Illinois Sunday

The Schott will be rockin' on Sunday. No. 10 Illinois is coming to Columbus to take on No. 19 Ohio State and the Big Ten championship is very much up in the air. The Buckeyes are coming off a huge win at Michigan on Thursday, while the Fighting Illini are still smarting from a home loss at the hands of Penn State last Saturday.

Last year's 65-64 victory over then-No. 1 and undefeated Illinois was the highlight of Ohio State's season and possibly the turning point for the program.

Revenge will be on the minds of the No. 10 Fighting Illini (20-3, 6-3 Big Ten) when they return to Columbus on Sunday (1 p.m., CBS).

The No. 19 Buckeyes (17-3, 6-3) are coming off a big 94-85 road win over No. 22 Michigan on Thursday. It marked the first time during the Thad Matta era that OSU has defeated a ranked team on the road.

Illinois has not played since a surprising 66-65 home loss to Penn State on Feb. 4.

Dee Brown, the 2004-05 Big Ten Player of the Year, returned for his senior season (due in part to an injury last spring) and is once again leading the way for the Illini. The 6-0 guard is averaging 15 points and 5.8 assists per game.

The only other returning starter from Illinois' national runner-up team is center James Augustine (6-10, Sr.). He is enjoying another solid year with averages of 13.3 points and 8.9 rebounds.

Other Illinois players to watch are: 6-3 junior shooting guard Rich McBride (9.8 ppg), 6-3 freshman guard Jamar Smith (8.8 ppg) and 6-8 sophomore forward Brian Randle (8.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg). The athletic Randle was injured last season and took a medical redshirt.

"We're going to be playing a great basketball team," Matta said. "When you've got two starters back from a team that was inches away from winning the national championship, and the supporting cast is all there, it's a very experienced basketball team. The role players on their team do a tremendous job."

While Brown was a known commodity entering the season, one of the surprise players of the Big Ten – and possibly the country – is Ohio State's Je'Kel Foster. The 6-3 senior guard leads OSU with 14.8 points per game, and leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 51.3 percent.

When asked if Foster was the best shooter he has ever coached, Matta said: "He's up there. I've had the luxury of coaching a guy who led the country with 57 percent one year (Joe Stafford from Western Carolina), and another guy who hands down is the best shooter I've ever coached who had the nation's longest free throw streak (Darnell Archey from Butler). But Je'Kel is right there. Je'Kel makes harder shots than those guys ever had to make. It's amazing how hard he has worked at his shot and you've seen what has transpired from it. He's right there in the top three that I've ever coached."

The key for OSU might be getting Foster and senior center Terence Dials to play well on the same day. The 6-9 Dials is averaging 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, but Matta knows his big man can play better.

"I've said it all year: We need Terence to play his best basketball in order for us to play our best basketball," Matta said. "Make no mistake about it, Terence is working hard and I think that consistency is something that we're striving for from him and putting together a solid 35 minutes, as opposed to 25."

With the Buckeyes continuing to struggle in the rebounding department, Matta wants to see Dials – and everyone else on the team – work harder at hitting the boards.

"We've taken a new approach to rebounding this year: We're trying to tire the opponent out by allowing them to get rebounds," Matta joked. "Hopefully in the end it will work for us.

"I think Terence has to help us on the boards. I think our guards, James (Sullinger), have to get in there for us. For us, it's a collective rebounding thing. We don't have the 6-8 power forward. We've got to do the best job we can."

One option for OSU would be to play backup center Matt Terwillger at the four spot.

"Yeah, there's a possibility, and we've done that this year some," Matta said.

But with all the focus on rebounding, the Buckeyes know they can't lose sight of Brown. Containing the player known as the "One Man Fastbreak" is another big key to victory for OSU.

"He's one of the best players in the country," Matta said. "You couple that with his speed and quickness and his ability to run their team. He's the reason, I think, that they are doing as well as they are. He's just a tremendous player."

Ohio State was without injured guard Sylvester Mayes for the win at Michigan, but Matta expects the junior will play against Illinois.

"He practiced (Friday)," Matta said. "He moved (Friday) very well. I don't think he was 100 percent, but he was back in the swing of things."

Matta makes no bones about the fact that last year's win over Illinois was a springboard for his program. He thinks the win actually carried over to this season and has allowed the Buckeyes to play with more confidence.

"I think it has," he said. "For where our team was last year and to get that win against anybody – it happened to be against Illinois – who was undefeated and No. 1 in the country on senior day for three seniors that weren't able to go to postseason play, I think that was a very big win for us. And I don't think we will know the affects that game had on us for a few years because it helps our program in a lot of different areas, and most importantly I think it helps our guys understand our system and a belief in it and having trust in what we were doing. I think it kind of validated everything that we had done up to that point with this team."

And of course the star of last year's game was OSU's Matt Sylvester, who buried a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds remaining in the game. The 6-7 Sylvester has not been playing well this season, but maybe the Illinois' orange will bring out the best in him again.

"Yeah, it's hard to not think about last year," Sylvester said. "I think it's going to be a great game and I don't know how it's going to go, but we're all excited to get it going, that's for sure."

Sylvester agrees with his coach that last year's game had a carry over effect this season for OSU.

"I think that game was a big boost for us in a lot of ways," Sylvester said. "Confidence level and it just gave us a feeling that we can play with anybody, no matter what. I think it did carry over to this year a little bit and it kind of gave us a swagger. Hopefully we can get another one."

But the dissenting opinion among the group is Dials. He is proud of last year's win, but says it has nothing to do with OSU's strong play this season.

"I don't think our success this year has anything to do with the win over Illinois last year," Dials said. "I just think we knew we were a better team coming into this year. The win last year was great, but I don't think it has anything to do with what we're doing this year. I think it's all the hard work we put in during the offseason and the belief in the coaches that we can get the job done this year."

Dials knows he has not played his best basketball this season. But he finished last year strong and he plans on doing the same thing this year. He was told Matta said OSU needs Dials to play well, in order for the team to play well, and he agrees.

"In a way, you can think of it that way because I'm the only proven big guy that we have," he said. "I'm pretty much the only low post player we have, so I think as I go, the team sort of goes. But at the same time, when I'm not having a good game, our guards have done a great job of picking us up. Sometimes we're hot from the outside, but we can't rely on that all the time. We've got to continue what we've been doing all season, which is inside-out."

Notes

* Illinois leads the all-time series 100-60.

* Illinois has a slight 39-38 advantage in games played in Columbus.

* Ohio State is 18-11 against Illinois when the Buckeyes are ranked.

* When both teams are ranked, Illinois has a 6-5 advantage.

* Ohio State leads the Big Ten in several categories, including: scoring offense (79.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.495), 3-point field goals made (9.3 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.25).

* Foster entered the week ranked No. 2 in the country in 3-point shooting percentage, behind Samford's Robert Merritt (50 percent), but Foster jumped Merritt with his 5 of 6 performance from long range at Michigan.


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