Home > Illinois basketball > Illini need Mario-world star power to top No. 2 Buckeyes

Illini need Mario-world star power to top No. 2 Buckeyes

Illinois (17-10, 7-7 Big Ten) at No. 2 Ohio State (25-2, 12-2 Big Ten)

6 p.m. // ESPN – Brent Musberger (play-by-play), Dan Dakich (analyst) and Jill Montgomert (sideline)

Star Power gives Super Mario an extra burst in the popular Nintendo video game series – often in desperate circumstances.

A few stars in the Big Ten have had the same impact for their respective teams as of late.

E’Twaun Moore collected enough coin (38 points) to lead Purdue to a 76-63 win over No. 2 Ohio State. Kalin Lucas was the single bob-omb Illinois couldn’t defuse on Saturday, leading Michigan State to a 61-57 win. The weekend prior, Jordan Taylor went for a near-perfect level in the second half of his 27-point effort to beat then-unbeaten Ohio State, while Moore and JaJuan Johnson combined for 28 points in a multi-player comeback win at Illinois.

Purdue and Wisconsin are the hottest players in the Big Ten – a combined 9-2 this month with the only losses against each other – while the once sinking ship Michigan State appears to have plugged a few leaks after winning two of three.

Meanwhile, Illinois – losers of seven of the last 11 – continues to flounder in close games. That doesn’t bode well for the Illini’s odds of upsetting No. 2 Ohio State, which has Wooden Award candidate and likely national freshman of the year Jarred Sullinger,  tonight in Columbus.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber could use a Mario-world mushroom to power up his starless squad.

“If we’re going to have any chance, I think we’re going to have to shoot the ball well and maybe have someone be special like an E’Twaun Moore was yesterday,” Weber said.

But who is that hero?

“I don’t know anyone that’s going to get 38, but we need a Mike Tisdale to go five for five and make a couple threes or something like that,” Weber said. “I’m just using that as an example. Billy Cole (could) come in like he did against Iowa and jump up and make a couple threes, and he hasn’t made them. Somebody (must) make a shot-clock play.”

What he’s saying without exactly saying it is that Illinois lacks that one special player.

You can point to Demetri McCamey – who had his moments earlier in the season, including 30 points in a Dec. 8 win over Oakland but has had just one 20-plus point performance during the last 12 games – but Illinois is at its best when the senior point guard is the distributor. The Illini are 13-0 when McCamey has seven-plus assists, which hasn’t happened in eight straight games.

Like Weber said, Illinois needs solid scoring nights from multiple players to be more than mediocre in the Big Ten. The Illini are 10-1 – including some of its best resume builders (overtime loss to Texas and wins against Gonzaga, North Carolina, Northwestern, Michigan State and Minnesota) – when four players score in double digits.

But the Illini’s one consistency this season has been inconsistency. The team hasn’t clicked collectively since shooting 70.5 percent – a school record – in a 88-63 win against Northwestern on Jan. 6. Illinois has shot under 50 percent in eight straight games and is 29.5 percent from three during the same stretch.

“Somewhere here we got to shoot the ball well,” Weber said. “That’s the one thing I was just so disappointed in at Michigan State.”

Stars have OSU, PUR and WIS with a stronghold on the top three seeds in the Big Ten tournament, while a lack of Star Power will keep the initials ILL far from the game’s high scores.

Buckeyes fighting at the top

When Ohio State entered Assembly Hall a month ago to the day, talk centered around the Buckeyes’ chances to finish the season undefeated. But after losing two of three, Ohio State now must worry about staying atop the Big Ten standings. Purdue, which beat Ohio State 76-63 on Sunday, is just one game behind the Buckeyes in the Big Ten standings with four conference games remaining for both teams.

So much for the Illini sneaking up on a content, laidback Buckeyes squad, Weber said.

“I’m sure they will be hooked up, ready to play,” Weber said. “ The race obviously for them has gotten a little bit tighter. Every game down the stretch is important for us, for them, for everybody as you progress toward the late stretch of the season.”

Still, Weber hopes his panicky team – still too close to the NCAA Tournament bubble for comfort – plays like it has nothing to lose at Value City Arena.

“I told them yesterday, I don’t know if anyone in the country is saying, ‘Hey, Illinois’ going to Ohio State to win and especially after (the Buckeyes) lost to Purdue a day earlier with the race getting tighter,’” Weber said. “We have to go and just go play basketball and just put a little pressure on them.”

“If we get an eight-point lead again, then take good shots and find DeShaun Thomas and not let him get two threes in a row. I kind of laugh (when) I look at the stats from yesterday he’s 0-for-6 and 0-for-3 from three.”

Quotable

“Toughness, just amazing toughness for a freshman that doesn’t back down to anyone, that doesn’t care if he scores a point. …He just runs the team, guards the best people, gets them into their stuff. (He’s) just been a very posed, unselfish freshman.”

–          Illinois coach Bruce Weber on what OSU freshman Aaron Craft brings to the Buckeyes

Lessoned learned?

Illinois might be an NCAA Tournament shoe-in if it had defeated Ohio State at the Assembly Hall last month. Asked what his team needs to do to top Ohio State after blowing a 50-42 second-half lead to the Buckeyes on Jan.22, Weber said:

“If we get an eight-point lead again, then take good shots and find DeShaun Thomas (who scored eight points in 12 minutes off the bench) and not let him get two threes in a row,” Weber said. “I kind of laugh (when) I look at the stats from yesterday he’s 0-for-6 and 0-for-3 from three.

“We’re going to have to a great job on the defensive end, not give them easy baskets.”

Ohio State 68, Illinois 61

Can Illinois hang with the No. 2 team in the country? Sure. We saw that last month. But can Illini make the smart decisions and hit the big shots down the stretch to pull off a win on the road against one of the nation’s top teams? We haven’t seen that yet this season. Put down a 20-10 night for Sullinger. The kid’s good. But how Illinois defends William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty will determine the Illini’s defensive success. And to borrow the old cliche, at the end of the day, Illinois has to shoot really well to win this game. Too many players are slumping to think that will happen in Columbus tonight.

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy atjeremy@myconnectfm.com.

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