COLUMBUS, Ohio – Despite losing three of its last four games, Illinois is looking forward to playing close to home in this week's Big Ten tournament at United Center in Chicago.
Even a 68-55 loss at No. 14 Ohio State on Sunday didn't dampen the expectation of playing for keeps in front of a lot of friendly faces.
"It's fun. It's closer to home for many of us," guard Brandon Paul said. "We've got a lot of Chicago guys. At the same time, we have to come out with the mindset that we can compete with any team. We have to play with a chip on our shoulders."
Paul had 21 points and the Illini (21-11, 8-10 Big Ten) played on even terms with the Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5) before and after an Ohio State surge late in the half turned the game around.
The Buckeyes scored 12 of the last 14 points in the first half to take a 33-24 lead and then held off any challenges the rest of the way.
"The biggest segment of the game was the 12-2 Ohio State run to end the first half," said first-year coach John Groce, a former assistant to Ohio State's Thad Matta. "Basically, you take that 12-2 run out, we're right there."
The Illini kept fighting back. They pulled as close as 51-44 on consecutive 3s by Paul and Myke Henry.
But then Ohio State's Aaron Craft, who has broken out of a lethargic offensive season with several big scoring efforts, drove the lane and banked in a layup in traffic. After an Illini miss, Big Ten scoring leader Deshaun Thomas, who finished with 19 points, fed Evan Ravenel for a three-point play.
Craft, who had 14 points and six assists and played his usual physical defense, then rebounded at the other end and tossed in a 3 late in the shot clock and the lead was 15 with less than six minutes left.
Grose was disappointed with the loss, but saw a lot of positives.
"I was really proud of our guys for their toughness," Groce said. "We demonstrated a lot of toughness. We had a good energy about us, I really liked that. We were together, we were tough, I like our body language, our disposition."
Like a lot of teams in the Big Ten and college basketball in general, this has been an up-and-down season for the Illini. They won their first 12 games to climb to No. 10 in the nation, lost seven of their first nine games in the first half of the conference season, then won five in a row including a stunning upset of then-No. 1 Indiana.
They head into the Big Ten tournament with an odd mix of major wins (Gonzaga, Indiana, Ohio State) and several bad losses.
The No. 8-seeded Illini will play ninth-seeded Minnesota on Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes will play on Friday night in the quarterfinals against the winner of seventh-seeded Purdue and 11th-seeded Nebraska.
Almost everyone expects a wild tournament based on the series of upsets and close calls so far in the conference.
"Whoa. It's going to be unbelievable," Grose said. "It's been challenging. The league is as deep as I've ever seen it. It's incredible. Now you have a tournament with all those teams coming in, a lot of times playing teams for the third or second time. Familiarity breeds contempt."
He added: "Everybody knows what everybody's doing. It should be a heck of a tournament."
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