The undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes are moving into the meat of the Big Ten schedule. They visit Illinois today for what should be their toughest challenge yet.
Every Buckeye basketball fan remembers “The Shot” by Matt Sylvester that catapulted the Buckeyes to an upset win over no. 1-ranked Illinois in Thad Matta’s first season as Ohio State’s coach. This year, the roles are reversed, with the Buckeyes carrying the no. 1 ranking into the game, but that is where the similarities end. Illinois is a far more talented, experienced team than the upset-minded Buckeyes of six years ago. The Fighting Illini are led by Demetri McCamey, the sturdy senior guard who leads the team in scoring and assists. Another senior, Mike Tisdale, anchors the Illini in the middle, leads the team in rebounding, and likes to shoot from the outside. Illinois also has lots of depth and recently beat always-tough Michigan State behind 20 points from sophomore guard Brandon Paul.
The Illini will be the best team the Buckeyes have played so far, and Assembly Hall clearly will be the toughest venue the Buckeyes have visited. Although previews of the game have focused on how Illinois will defend Jared Sullinger, I think the bigger question is how freshman Aaron Craft will fare bringing the ball up court in the din created by the Illinois student section. In the Big Ten, the good teams usually feature battle-tested seniors who know what it is like to play in hostile environments on the road. Craft has been excellent this season, but he has not yet faced a crucial game played in a deafening arena. Another interesting question will be how Coach Matta uses defensive ace David Lighty, and whether we will see Lighty defend McCamey. And I expect that the Buckeyes will need good outside shooting from Jon Diebler and William Buford to loosen up the middle for Sullinger.
The tip is at noon today.
Edited to add: In a fantastic game of runs and counter-runs, the Buckeyes overcame a second-half deficit, tightened up their defense, knocked down their free throws down the stretch, and came out on top over Illinois. Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft were huge contributors, as was Deshaun Thomas, who came off the bench to spark the Buckeyes in the second half. Ohio State is now 20-0, but the task doesn’t get any easier. Next up is Purdue on Tuesday night.