No. 25 Illini try to crack Buckeyes

No. 25 Illini try to crack Buckeyes

By Jeremy Werner

The schedule just didn’t line up right for Calvin Brock.

His 17-year-old sister Morgan, mother Stephanie Williams and stepfather Quadir Dawan will be part of an expected crowd of two million to gather at the U.S. Capitol to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.

With a game against Ohio State on Tuesday at 6 p.m., Brock was unable to travel with his family, even though he’d like to. Instead, Brock will have to settle for a nationally televised showdown with the Buckeyes.

“I’m not disappointed in it, but it would have been a good thing to go see the first African-American president,” Brock said. “Just to go to the inauguration and all is just a good opportunity for anybody.”

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    The Assembly Hall will provide a mini-taste of the celebration going on at the nation’s capital. Each person entering the Assembly Hall will receive a miniature American flag as part of “Illinois Day” honoring the state’s former junior senator turned president.

    While Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, Illinois will receive its first test as a nationally-recognized team against the Buckeyes. Illinois (15-3, 3-2 Big Ten) is ranked 25th in this week’s Associated Press poll and 24th in the ESPN/USA Today poll – the first time the Illini have been ranked since the end of the 2005-06 season.

    “I thought we might have been in a few weeks ago but we haven’t,” senior guard Trent Meacham said.

    “We happened to crack it after a loss. Really it doesn’t matter to us. We just have to continue to play and not worry about what other people are saying or what other people are thinking about us.”

    Ohio State travels to Champaign riding a five-game win streak against the Illini, dating back to a 65-64 upset over then-undefeated Illinois on March 6, 2005.

    “They definitely have had our number,” Meacham said. “I’ve never beat them in my career.”

    With no seniors on the roster and junior David Lighty out another month with a broken foot, the Buckeyes (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten) have relied on a stable of young but talented underclassmen.

    “They really control the tempo of the game and limit possessions,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said.

    “(Ohio State coach) Thad (Matta) does a good job of getting it to their shooters in the right spots where they can be successful.”

    Sophomore Evan Turner, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward, has played well enough to be a leading Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Turner is averaging 15.9 points per game (third in Big Ten), 7.0 rebounds per game (sixth in the Big Ten) and 2.19 steals (first in the Big Ten).

    Turner, a Chicago native, played on the same AAU team (the Illinois Wolves) as Illinois sophomore Demetri McCamey.

    “He’s a monster that causes mismatch problems,” McCamey said. “He’ll be really tough to guard (Tuesday) night.”

    Freshman guard William Buford has averaged 16.1 points for the Buckeyes in the last eight games since stepping into Lighty’s starting spot. B.J. Mullens, a 7-foot, 275-pound freshman, is also starting to settle into the Big Ten. The highly-touted prospect has scored in double figures in his last four games.

    Mullins and sophomore Dallas Lauderdale, who leads the Big Ten with 2.69 blocks per game, pose challenges to less physical Illinois big men.

    “They’re shot blockers,” sophomore center Mike Tisdale said. “They move pretty well. We’ll have to attack them a little bit hopefully and maybe get them in some foul trouble.”

    Tuesday will be a big day for the state of Illinois as one of its sons ascends to the presidency. But it will also be an important night for the Illinois basketball program as it tries to defend its national ranking in front of an ESPN audience.

    “We’re off to a pretty good start,” Meacham said.

    “But it’s a long road and there’s a lot of big games. Every game is going to be big. We have a huge week this week.”