In a conference like the Big Ten, nothing comes easy. If any team has seen that so far, it has been Bruce Weber’s Fighting Illini. After scraping by Minnesota with a double-overtime victory, getting blasted by Purdue on the road and barely surviving contests against Northwestern and Nebraska, the Illini have fans wondering if these performances are an illustration of their toughness or inefficiencies.
Without big plays down the stretch, any of the Illini’s three conference wins could have ended up in the loss column. Still, it is going to take much more if the Illini intend to compete with the tops in the Big Ten, with Tuesday’s matchup against Ohio State serving as their first chance to show they can do it. The Buckeyes (15-2) will surely be the Illini’s biggest test so far this season.
Ohio State, ranked #5 in the country in the AP and USA Today polls, will come into Champaign with a 3-1 conference record, having lost at #7 Indiana on New Year’s Eve. The Buckeyes currently hold a five game winning streak against the Illini, with Illinois’ last victory over Thad Matta coming in February of 2009.
This year the Buckeyes look as tough as ever, led by sophomore standout Jared Sullinger. Sullinger ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring with 17.1 ppg. and second in rebounding with 9.6 rpg. Sullinger (6’8″, 280 lbs) was a handful for the Illini the last time he was in Champaign, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in the Buckeyes 73-68 victory. Most of Sullinger’s damage was done against then-seniors Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Now, Meyers Leonard will get his shot.
Leonard has been up and down for the Illini the past five games. His 20 point, 11 rebound performance was key to Illinois’ 2OT victory against the Gophers. However, Leonard was much less of a factor at Purdue and home against Nebraska (7 points in each game). Foul trouble has plagued the young center, in addition to an occasional loss of concentration. Double teams and lack of touches have frustrated Leonard at times, but the Illini will need his best effort if they want to compete with the Buckeyes.
The Illini must find ways to open things up for the big man, not allowing opponents to pack down inside. D.J. Richardson’s return to the starting lineup should help in this aspect, if the injury to his right wrist does not hamper his shooting capability too much. Another player who will be key in taking pressure off of Leonard is Joseph Bertrand. Bertrand has been a pleasant surprise for the Illini, ever since his 19 point performance against Missouri.
Bertrand carried the Illini to victory against the Huskers on Saturday, scoring 25 points on 11-12 shooting. Through the past five games, Bertrand has averaged 15 ppg., while shooting an eye-opening 72.3 % percent from the field. Bertrand’s ability to put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket is something that Coach Weber’s squad has been lacking this season. His continued success will play a big factor over the final two months of the regular season.
Pulling out a victory against the Buckeyes will be no easy task for the Illini, as they put their 13 game home winning streak on the line. Defensive breakdowns led to a beat down against the Boilermakers a week and a half ago, and the Illini will need to step it up against an even more talented offense. Buckeye point guard Aaron Craft ranks first in the conference in assists (5.1 asp), as he finds Sullinger, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas (14.8 ppg) and William Buford (15.4), who will finish this season near the top of the list of Ohio State’s all-time scoring leaders.
Illini starting point guard Sam Maniscalco is listed as doubtful with a nagging ankle injury. The chances of the Illini winning this game look nearly as bleak.