Illinois coach Bruce Weber called wins last week over Northwestern and Nebraska “masterpieces.”
That’s because his Fighting Illini were without senior guard Sam Maniscalco against the Wildcats (57-56) and then against the Cornhuskers (59-54) they were still missing Maniscalco and junior D.J. Richardson basically played with just one hand.
“They weren’t beautiful by any means, but to find a way to win was unbelievable for our guys,’’ said Weber, putting them into perspective. “Do we have to get better? Heck, yeah, and it’s got to be fast.’’
That’s because Illinois (14-3 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten) will welcome one of the league’s big dogs to the Assembly Hall.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (15-2, 3-1) under the direction of former Hoopeston standout Thad Matta will look for their sixth straight win over the Illini.
“Obviously, we have a big challenge,’’ Weber said.
And one of the biggest factors in tonight’s contest, which tips off at 8 p.m. on ESPN, figures to be sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger, who is averaging 17.1 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.
“I’m not sure there is a good approach, because you have such other good weapons and he has such great poise,’’ Weber said.
Those other weapons for Ohio State are guards Aaron Craft, William Buford and Lenzelle Smith along with forward Deshaun Thomas.
“We have to come out and guard, we can’t come out and think we are going to outscore them,’’ said Illinois guard Brandon Paul, who figures to get the assignment of guard Buford, who is second on the team in scoring at 15.4 a game.
“At the same time, we have to run our offense and get good shots,’’ Paul said.
And according to Weber, that isn’t going to be easy against this group of Buckeyes.
“Their defense seems to be better at this point,’’ Weber said. “Last year, they could score with anyone. This year, they are still very good scorers, but the difference in their defense has been very good along with rebounding.’’
Ohio State is averaging 78 points per game, while allowing just 54.9 a game.
On the other hand, Illinois is scoring 68.2 a contest and the Illini are allowing 60.2.
And while the coach is pleased with the last two victories, the Illini nation doesn’t see it the same way.
A cascade of boos filled the Assembly Hall at halftime of Saturday’s game with Nebraska.
“Yeah, we hear it,’’ Paul said. “You have to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’’
But, a miracle win tonight over the fifth-rated Buckeyes could change everything.
“It can change very quickly in sports,’’ Weber said. “We are a young group and we are getting better.’’
And what is the coach hoping for tonight?
“We need a Bronco win, a Tebow experience,’’ said Weber referring to the Denver Broncos’ 29-23 overtime victory against Pittsburgh on Sunday behind quarterback Tim Tebow.
A big factor in tonight’s contest figures to be the battle inside between sophomore centers as Sullinger, the Big Ten Player of the Week, will go against Meyers Leonard, the 7-1 big man for Illinois.
“Jared is a great player, one of the best bigs in the country. It will be a great matchup for me,’’ Leonard said. “He knows how to use his body well, good at drawing falls, very skilled and knows the game.
“With my athleticism and the length, maybe I can give him some troubles. But if he buries me under the basket, it will be tough.’’
While both players are sophomores, Sullinger started all 37 games last year, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game.
Meanwhile, Leonard averaged just 8 minutes a game a year ago and just 2.1 points a contest.
“I’ve had some ups and downs,’’ said Leonard, who is averaging 12.9 points and 8.0 rebounds a contest this year. “I’m a playing sophomore, but I’m still somewhat of a freshman as college basketball goes.
“It’s been tough, a lot of teams has been keying on me these days. It’s been tough finding different ways to score. I just have to keep getting better and improving.’’
Weber admitted part of that improvement for Leonard is maturity.
“The example that I brought up is Sullinger,’’ Weber said. “I asked (Meyers) what is Sullinger’s greatest attribute last year as a freshman?
“Meyers said his hook, and this and that.’’
Weber didn’t agree.
“It was his poise,’’ he said. “He had to deal with so many people doing so many things against him.
“Those are the things that Meyers can get better at.’’
Coach Lou Henson honored at halftime
Former Illinois coach Lou Henson will have a banner, honoring his many achievements, raised at halftime of tonight’s game.
Henson, who is celebrating his 80th birthday tonight, is the winningest coach in school history with 423 victories over 21 years. He ranks fourth in Big Ten history in overall wins and conference wins as well with 214.
In his career, Henson led the Illini to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances and the 1989 Final Four.
Other coaches to be honored this season will be Harry Combes, Doug Mills and Ralph Jones.
Ohio State Buckeyes
vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
Where — Assembly Hall
When — 8 p.m.
Records — Ohio State 15-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten; Illinois 14-3, 3-1.
Rankings — The Buckeyes are rated fifth in the latest Associated Press Poll, while the Illini are receiving votes
Television — ESPN with Mike Tirico and Dan Dakich
Radio — Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL 102.1
Previous results — Illinois leads the series with Ohio State 102-69, but the Buckeyes have won five straight including both meetings last year.
Last game results — Ohio State defeated Iowa 76-47 on Saturday, while Illinois rallied to beat Nebraska 59-54.
Next game — The Buckeyes will host the Indiana Hoosiers on Sunday; while the Illini are idle until a Jan. 19 contest at Penn State.
Scoring — Ohio State: Jared Sullinger 17.1 points per game, William Buford 15.4, Deshaun Thomas 14.8. Illinois: D.J. Richardson 13.2, Meyers Leonard 12.9, Brandon Paul 12.1
Rebounding — Ohio State: Sullinger 9.6 rebounds per game, Buford 4.7, Lenzelle Smith 4.6, Thomas 4.1. Illinois: Leonard 8.0, Paul 4.5, Tyler Griffey 3.8.
Assists — Ohio State: Aaron Craft 5.1, Buford 3.6, Shannon Scott 2.2, Smith 2.1; Illinois: Paul 3.2, Sam Maniscalco 2.8, Richardson 1.8.