Originally Published: January 4, 2012

At the Watercooler: Weekend preview

By Eamonn Brennan & Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan met at the watercooler to discuss what they're looking forward to this weekend in college basketball.

Eamonn Brennan: Greetings, Mr. Medcalf. Happy New Year. I presume you've recovered enough from the festivities to discuss college basketball, yes? Because all I did was have a schmancy dinner with friends, and by Tuesday night I still wasn't moving all that well. I think this means I'm getting old.

Myron Medcalf: If that NYE celebration means you're getting old, then I'm ancient. I was asleep on my couch before midnight with two little girls who were supposed to wake me up once the ball dropped. Last time I count on them. But I enjoyed getting the rest, something we'll all need if this week is any indication of what's ahead for conference play. Before we get to the weekend, how about the week?

Minnesota over Michigan State? Wow. Marquette-Connecticut with a crazy finish that sent the game into overtime and an officiating crew that started the extra period with the teams going in the wrong direction -- and then cost the Huskies a bucket because of the error. Illinois loses to Purdue in Chapter 1 of "The Big Ten Gauntlet," and Gonzaga continues its mission to win the Big 12 title without actually competing in the Big 12 by beating Oklahoma State on the road. It's not even Saturday yet. What game on this weekend's slate is the most appealing matchup in your eyes?

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Bradley Leeb/US PresswireBrandon Paul and Illinois look to get back on track against OSU.

Eamonn: Before Wednesday night, I think the most obviously eye-catching game (if because of the casual draw to rankings alone) was Ohio State at Illinois. After Illinois' loss at Purdue, it's not looking quite like the matchup of Big Ten titans it could have been. And I don't say that because one Big Ten road loss invalidates what the Illini have done this season. That's not the case. It's the way Illinois lost -- going 10-of-26 from 3 and 11-of-33 inside the arc, and scoring just 0.97 points per trip, while getting significantly outrebounded by a team whose best big men are all still works in progress. We've long since established the truth about these Illini: For as good as their start was (and as good a story as it was to see), it's hard to trust their ability to knock down shots. Beyond that, they don't do a whole lot well.

But that doesn't mean I'm looking forward to the OSU-Illinois game any less. In fact, it should be fascinating. Will Illinois be one of those teams that just gets hot at different times and ends up with the how-did-you-lose-to-Purdue-and-beat-Ohio State record to prove it?

Myron: That's what is so fascinating about Ohio State-Illinois. I'm not saying that two losses will disqualify the Illini or any team from the Big Ten title hunt. But with so many tests ahead and everyone else, two immediate losses could. So now Illinois is already in a "We-might-have-to-win-this-if-we're-still serious-about-the-Big-Ten-title" game. I love the fact that we have stakes this early in the Big Ten, America's best league. I can't wait to see if Illinois meets the challenge.

That could be the theme for the entire weekend. A bunch of squads have crucial opportunities to make statements about their relevance within their respective leagues. I'm looking at you, Marquette. The Golden Eagles just won an overtime thriller over Connecticut. Georgetown comes to town Saturday. Marquette has a great opportunity to get a big win early in Big East play. And Georgetown, game by game, has figured out its true ceiling. If the Hoyas can score, consistently, watch out.

Georgetown is a very good defensive team with a lot of offensive potential. So I'm definitely looking forward to that game because Marquette (44th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 91st in adjusted defensive efficiency per Pomeroy) and Georgetown are in that assembly of Big East schools -- everyone not named Louisville, Cincy and Syracuse, in my opinion -- that we're still assessing. As you can see, I really love this matchup.

Eamonn: You do love that matchup, eh? You also better be careful, so casually putting "America's best league" after the Big Ten like that. Jim Delany is likely to trademark that and leave you out in the cold. (I heard that's what happened with "Legends and Leaders," but the original inventor was so embarrassed he just let the Big Ten take it. I'm kidding, but it feels plausible.)

I hate to say this, but I really don't think Illinois is serious about the Big Ten title hunt. Not in this league, not with so many contenders standing in its way. The Illini just aren't there. And, you know, that's OK! They were supposed to be bad this season, and they aren't, and I think after the last few years Illini fans are just happy to be happy.

I covered Friday's Memphis-Tennessee matchup in the video above, and that's kind of an interesting game for a couple of reasons: It might be the last time these two teams play for a while and Memphis really needs this game. The rest of Conference USA is somehow looking even worse than anyone expected to start the season (I blame Marshall), and the Tigers won't have another chance to get even a decent win outside their own conference. They might not need it; maybe they'll easily cruise to the C-USA tournament title. But that's a huge risk, and one Memphis could face if it doesn't take care of business the rest of the way. The Tigers have had their nonconference chances, and they haven't come through.

Myron: True. Illini fans will certainly accept this. Much better than what they were forced to accept last season.

As for the other matchup you mentioned, I hate that this could be the end for Tennessee-Memphis. I get the philosophy. Pastner doesn't want to give his in-state rival any recruiting advantage. But you know how you eliminate that advantage? By beating your in-state rival. What happened to that mentality? "We're better than those guys across town/the state/the border and we'll prove it so the recruits can see for themselves." Like you said, it's important for both teams. Memphis needs any potential quality win it can get. And the Vols, well, they have something to prove too. Mainly that their offense is capable of breaking 50 consistently.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State junior DeShaun Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.9 ppg.

You know who else has an important matchup? Creighton. The Bluejays had a tough encounter with Illinois State on Wednesday but emerged with a 79-72 win. On Saturday, Creighton takes on a hot Indiana State team that beat Miami on Christmas Day. I know a lot of leagues will send more teams to the NCAA tourney, but I like the way that the MVC race is stacking up. I think Creighton will be challenged after it looked like an overwhelming favorite in the preseason.

Eamonn: Myron, fortunately -- well, unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, I guess -- Pastner got totally and utterly left hanging out to dry by his athletic director Thursday evening. So it's looking like Memphis-Tennessee will remain! Yay! Poor Josh. That's harsh, Tom Bowen. Can the dude live? I agree about the mentality -- just man up and play Tennessee, it's not like it's hurt Pastner with Memphis recruits -- but you can't help but feel bad when a guy just gets publicly steamrolled like that. Yikes.

I can't go all the way with you on Indiana State-Creighton. Maybe in Terre Haute, but not in Omaha. I will make the ever-so-bold prediction that my proud fellow Iowans Doug McDermott and Grant Gibbs will roll. You heard it here first!

Honestly, I think the best game of the weekend is Oklahoma State-Kansas State. Our ESPN Insider/chat friend John Gasaway had a nice analysis the other day about how OSU's crest has been perfectly timed, because the rest of the Big 12 is either ugly or unproven. For example: Would you be surprised if Texas won at Baylor on Saturday? I honestly wouldn't be. And other than Baylor and Kansas State, who in the Big 12 is even a plausible competitor with Kansas this season?

That's why Oklahoma State's first true conference road game -- in the Octagon of Doom, no less -- should be not only entertaining but enlightening. I just wonder if K-State fans will bring old Frank Martin big head signs out of storage. I mean ... it couldn't hurt.

No. 8 Ohio State (11-2) at No. 11 Illinois (13-2)

By Jay Bilas
ESPN.com

When and where: Saturday, 2:15 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network

Game overview: Ohio State comes into this key road game having lost only at Duke and at home against Kansas. The Buckeyes have been tested and are a quality team whose offensive and defensive efficiency is each rated among the top dozen in the country. Ohio State minimizes turnovers, averaging only 10 per game, and does a good job of limiting opponents to one challenged shot. Defensively, this team has excellent perimeter defenders from both an individual and team standpoint.

Aaron Craft is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and keys the defense with great ball pressure. But Shannon Scott also has been among the best defenders in the country so far. Scott leads Ohio State with 29 steals, while Craft has 22. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson are also excellent defenders who are athletic and physical. The Buckeyes can match up with any backcourt in the country, get down in a stance and guard them. Simply put, Ohio State is the best defensive team in the Big Ten, especially when guarding inside the 3-point line.

Illinois, on the flip side, has outstanding guards who can really score and make great use of the 3-point line. The Illini have five guys who have hit 15 or more 3s, including three players who have hit 24 or more. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams are difficult to contain and can all get their own. Illinois is a good passing team that really moves the ball and makes great use of the dribble. But this is primarily a jump-shooting team that does not get the ball into the post and does not get to the free throw line. Illinois wins from deep and in transition. Illinois has had trouble cleaning up its defensive glass. The Illini's first-shot defense is very good, but they allow too many second shots. Ohio State has, at times, been a good offensive rebounding team.

Player Illinois must stop: The Buckeyes have several players who can score, and Illinois has to be conscious of Lenzelle Smith out of the corner and take away angles in the post. But to beat Ohio State, you have to limit Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 lefty is a natural scorer who Ohio State will screen into the post and use in pick-and-pop situations, and he has a quick release on his shot. Thomas leads Ohio State in scoring and rebounding, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds, while shooting 47 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 80 percent from the line. To limit Thomas, you must force him to be a 2-point shooter and make him work hard as a defender by involving him in ball screens and going at him; also, you must not foul him. He will get his shots, but if he has to take mostly 2s and is not fouled, he has to work harder to produce big numbers.

Player Ohio State must stop: Illinois has multiple threats on the perimeter, but Brandon Paul is the biggest gun. Paul is averaging 18 points but has the ability to go off for 35, as he did at Gonzaga. Last season against Ohio State, he put up 43. Paul is good in transition, is strong with the ball, and has knocked down 39 3-point field goals in 15 games. He leads Illinois in scoring, rebounding, assists, 3s made and free throws made, and he is second in steals. Illinois can beat you with Richardson and Abrams, but it can't beat you without production from Paul.

Editor's Note: To read more of Jay Bilas' breakdown of Ohio State-Illinois and to see his prediction, click here.

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