January 4, 2013

Three-point play: Illinois

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On Wednesday, the No. 8 Ohio State men's basketball team picked up its first win over a BCS conference opponent this season with a 70-44 victory over Nebraska. Tomorrow, the Buckeyes will get the chance to defeat their first nationally ranked opponent, when they travel to Champagne, Ill. for a meeting with No. 11 Illinois.

Prior to hitting the road, Thad Matta and members of his team helped preview their 2:15 tipoff with the Fighting Illini.

Groce thoughts

Despite coming off of a loss to Purdue on Wednesday, Illinois is enjoying a revival of sorts this season under first-year coach and former Matta protege and assistant John Groce. Having coached against a number of his former assistants including Sean Miller and former Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, Matta said the novelty of playing against one of his friends has worn off.

"That was probably the one thing I learned when Todd was at Iowa was that that's all irrelevant. It's a Big Ten basketball game," Matta said. "You've gotta get yourself ready to go."

One of the Buckeyes' top recruiters during his time in Columbus from 2004-2008, Groce helped bring players such as Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and even Deshaun Thomas to Ohio State. Having played against Groce's Ohio University team in a closed scrimmage two seasons ago, OSU point guard Aaron Craft said that he sees similarities between the Illini coach and Matta.

"The things he was yelling, they were different, he had his own feel to it, but at the same time I think you could definitely Coach Matta's philosophy and roots kind of in what he was saying and what he was preaching," Craft said. "Any time you spend some time under a great coach like Coach Matta, you're going to pick up some things and you're going to learn some things along the way."

Fighting the Illini

The last time the Buckeyes visited Champagne, they were served a stunning upset after surrendering 43 points to Illinois guard Brandon Paul. With that performance still fresh in his mind, OSU guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said that Paul will have the Buckeyes' full attention on Saturday.

"Of course we know what he's capable of from last year. But this year it's a different ball game, a different team," Smith said. "Our awareness is a little more heightened, so we have more detail or more attention towards him. Hopefully just we come out and just play a better defensive game and be able to guard him a little better."

Matta said that the improvement that Illinois has made this season with its 13-2 record is reminiscent of the early success that he found in Columbus during his first season in 2004-05.

"They're playing with kind of a newfound spirit, which you guys saw when I came in here nine years ago," Matta said. "They're probably pushing it a little bit more in transition than maybe they have in past, but defensively, they're pretty sound."

A little more serious

Now that Big Ten play has begun, Smith has noticed a change in the Buckeyes demeanor. Strive for a fourth conference title in as many years, OSU players know that they can no longer take games for granted or take any nights off.

"The Big Ten has started. We're shooting real bullets now. Every game counts, every game matters," Smith said. "We just need to come out and get better every day. We need to be that every day team."

Now at the midpoint of the regular season, Matta said that he likes where his team's collective mindset is at. No longer the favorite and picked to finish third in the conference, the OSU coach said that the Buckeyes appear to be just as motivated- if not more- as they have been any other season.

"I like the demeanor that they have. We're not picked to win the Big Ten, and I think that maybe heightens a little bit of awareness," Matta said. "You're right in the thick of it and building a team is a process in terms of guys kind of finding their niche and what type of personality they're going to bring to practice."


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