By Dave Wischnowsky–
Caked in ice and covered by tundra that’s at least as frozen as anything you’ll find at Lambeau Field, there isn’t a whole lot that becomes ripe in Illinois during January.
But come Saturday morning in Champaign, I think that’s just what the top-ranked Ohio State basketball team will be.
At 11 a.m. (CBS), No. 1 Ohio State skates into Assembly Hall to tangle with a 23rd-ranked Fighting Illini team fresh off Tuesday’s rousing defeat of Michigan State inside an arena filled with 16,618 orange-clad fans who still remember the blemish the Buckeyes put on Illinois’ perfect record in 2005.
They’ll be thirsty for revenge. And, hey, it’s best served cold, right?
(Champaign’s Friday night forecast: 11 degrees.)
Over the years, I’ve been to countless Illinois basketball games at Assembly Hall and there are few stadiums in the country that provide better – or more intimidating – atmospheres for big games.
From 1999 to 2006, when Illinois went 93-4 at home, there were few places more difficult to play any game. Since then, the Illini are only 58-19 at the Hall, but they’re 10-0 there this season. And if Illinois’ blistering shooting in victories over North Carolina, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State is any indication (and I’d certainly say it is), then Illinois’ homecourt mojo appears to have risen again.
On Saturday, the Illini (14-5, 4-2) are going to need every ounce of it when Ohio State (18-0, 5-0) takes the court. There’s no doubt that the Buckeyes are a good and very talented team. But I have strong doubts about whether they’re actually a great one.
When the 2010-11 college basketball schedules were released last year, I actually predicted that Ohio State would arrive in Champaign for Saturday’s game unbeaten – and with a little luck, perhaps, ranked No. 1. If the Buckeyes beat Iowa in Columbus tonight (they certainly should) then both of those things will happen.
It really wasn’t a difficult prognostication to make considering the stunning absence of good teams on Ohio State’s schedule. The Buckeyes’ only nonconference wins of note this season have been Florida and Florida State on the road and South Carolina and Oakland (Mich.) at home. Granted, FSU just upset No. 1 Duke in Tallahassee, but the Buckeyes hardly played a “Murderer’s Row” (yes, Gordon Gee that was for you) before the Big Ten schedule began.
And they’ve hardly played one to open league play, either. In conference, the Buckeyes are yet to play an apparent Big Ten contender (Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin) and their five wins have been less than dominant.
So far, Ohio State has beaten Indiana by eight (on the road), Iowa by five (on the road), Minnesota by three (at home), Michigan by four (on the road) and Penn State by three (at home).
That’s five wins decided by an average of just 4.6 points per game.
Forgive me if I’m not that impressed.
Now, again, I don’t discount Ohio State’s talent level (it’s high) and I don’t discount the dominance of its freshman big man Jared Sullinger (he’s huge) who will likely give Illinois fits in the paint. But I also am not going to discount just how difficult it is for a visiting team to win a big game at Assembly Hall.
In fact, the last – and only – two times that the nation’s top-ranked team visited Champaign, No. 1 Michigan State (in 1979) and No. 1 Wake Forest (in 2004) both turned into pumpkins.
Assembly Hall will look just like one of those on Saturday.
And don’t be surprised if Ohio State suffers the same fate.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.