Ohio State v Illinois
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:49AM
CHAMPAIGN — Just when even the most die-hard orange-and-blue loyalists wondered if No. 11 Illinois was overrated, the Illini bounced back and reminded everyone of the importance of home-court advantage in what likely will be a wild Big Ten race.
Illinois looked more like it did in the first two months of the season, swamping No. 8 Ohio State 74-55 Saturday before a capacity crowd at Assembly Hall.
“I don’t know why, but people got crazy after our last loss,’’ said Illini guard Brandon Paul, who had a team-high 19 points. “It’s a long season. It’s just one game. This is just one game. We’re going to enjoy it, but tomorrow is a new day.’’
Illinois rebounded from a disappointing loss in the Big Ten opener Wednesday at Purdue by beating Ohio State for the second time in the last eight meetings. After a rugged practice Thursday to test the their grit, the Illini hounded Ohio State into 11 turnovers in the first half, one more than the Buckeyes’ per-game average, and had a 40-30 rebounding edge.
When Illinois (14-2, 1-1 Big Ten) hosts No. 9 Minnesota on Wednesday, it’s another battle royale in a Big Ten season that will feature plenty of WWE brawls. With six top-25 teams, each week is a new adventure.
The league “is as deep as I’ve ever seen it,’’ said Illinois coach John Groce, who earned his first Big Ten victory against one of his mentors, Thad Matta.
“You play one way one game, that doesn’t mean that’s going to happen the next game.
“If I could bottle up that toughness we had today and play with that toughness for the next 17 games, I’d do that. It’s delicate. That’s why each game is so different.’’
The margin of victory was Illinois’ largest against a top-10 team since a 23-point win over No. 10 Iowa in 1954. Illinois never trailed against the Buckeyes (11-3, 1-1) and led by 25 points midway through the second half.
Paul wore the same shoes he laced up last winter when scoring 43 to upset the fifth-ranked Buckeyes in Champaign. That victory gave Illinois a 15-3 record before a collapse cost Bruce Weber his job.
Without acknowledging the past, these Illini are preaching a level head.
“We’re not going to define our season by one game,’’ Groce said. “I was a little bit disappointed with our toughness Wednesday for the first time all year. We put a couple of guys on [notice]. They responded at a high level. When we wake up, we better be tough on Wednesday.’’
Illinois center Nnanna Egwu, relying on outside jumpers, scored a career-high 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
“He started knocking down 17-footers,’’ Matta said. “This is kind of their day. We seem to bring the best out of guys.’’
Guard Tracy Abrams had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists, but he and Paul combined for 11 turnovers.
Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas scored 24 points, but the Buckeyes struggled to find other scoring threats. Guard Aaron Craft had 11 points and four steals.