Illini headed to Columbus for rematch



By Jeff LaBelle

Catching an early flight Monday to Columbus, Ohio, the Illinois men’s basketball team shifted focus from Saturday’s 74-67 debacle against Purdue to tonight’s game against the Buckeyes.

Illinois (9-10, 1-5 in Big Ten) held morning practice, left for the airport shortly afterwards and was set to arrive at Ohio State (12-6, 3-2) with plenty of time to prepare for Tuesday’s 8 p.m. start on the Big Ten Network.

It’s the Illini’s last game before a five-day layoff.

With Bruce Weber’s locker room tirade fresh on their minds, the Illini will be forced to rebound from a second half against Purdue that saw them on the losing side of a 20-3 run. Sub-.500 shooting on free throws yet again and a season-high 21 turnovers left the Illini losers in West Lafayette, Ind., and ahead of only Michigan and Northwestern in Big Ten standings.

Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Othello Hunter and Kosta Koufos will be the focus of the Illini defense as the trio highlighted a 74-69 loss to No. 7 Tennessee on Saturday. Turner had 21 points and 10 rebounds while Hunter and Koufos combined for 30 points and 19 rebounds in the loss.

Koufos, a 7-foot, 265-pound center with pro potential, could pose problems to the Illini inside. The freshman carries averages of 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and two blocks into the contest.

Illinois forward Brian Randle and center Shaun Pruitt have accounted for nearly half of the Illini’s points over the last three games, averaging a combined 30.3 points and 18.3 rebounds against Indiana, Michigan and Purdue. But the Illini have dropped six of seven games entering Tuesday’s contest and Randle, in particular, has struggled to stay out of foul trouble.

Randle was foul free during the entire first half against Purdue but accumulated four fouls in seven minutes to start the second half, forcing him off the floor during crucial stretches. He later fouled out.

“With Brian, again, it was fouls,” Weber said after Saturday’s game.

“He had four fouls in the second half and, I have to go back and watch it, he was maybe out of position or trying too hard or whatever. I’m not sure.”

Pruitt’s defense was called into question by the head coach.

“Shaun just has to defend better,” Weber said. “People isolate him. He’s got to fight in the post.”

In preparation for the Big Ten Tournament which runs March 13-16, Weber could opt to play freshmen more during the next few games to solidify its bench. Finishing first in the Big Ten would earn the Illini an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament and could be the Illini’s last chance at a postseason appearance.

Freshman Jeff Jordan played three minutes Saturday and had a season-high five points on 2-of-3 shooting.

Freshmen Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis both played less than ten minutes in the contest and Demetri McCamey, who has stepped into the starting lineup during the last four games, was benched in the second half against Purdue.

As for the team’s free throw woes, Weber said he’s tried everything to remedy the problem.

“We have tried every way that I know,” Weber said. “I’ve called people, we’ve come in extra, the people that follow us (send us) letters, all the e-mails, all the calls, we’ve come in second practices.

“Weighted ball shooting, form shooting, elbow shooting and just anything that you can think of and we haven’t been able to get over the hump. It’s a little bit contagious I guess. But it’s cost us, obviously.”