Illinois hosts Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Tuesday.

 It only gets more difficult from here.

With Illinois basketball playing two Big Ten Conference games between Christmas and New Year's Day, the Illini head into a rugged conference season with the league ranked No. 1 in the RPI.

"Our goal was 12 (wins) in the non-conference,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Now, you start over right into the Big Ten.''

Before Illinois hosts Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Tuesday, let's take a look at some of the hot topics:

-- Illinois playing small ball.

With sophomore wing Joe Bertrand scoring a career-high 19 points, including 17 in the second half, while hitting all nine shots in the 78-74 loss to Missouri last week, the Illini may have more versatility in lineups. If junior forward Tyler Griffey or freshman forward Mike Shaw are unproductive, the Illini may go with a small ball lineup with Bertrand, Weber said.

"I think we can at times,'' Weber said. "If Tyler is not getting as much done or Mike Shaw, now maybe you go with Joe at the four and put people in a bind. We'll play it by ear.

"If Joe continues to play well and shoot the ball well, we can mix it up and give teams a little bit different look.''

-- Do the Illini have the grit to win close games?

With the Big Ten standings expected to be log-jammed in the middle of the pack, Illinois will face a string of close games. After several tight wins against mid-majors, Illinois failed down the stretch vs. Missouri.

"That was one of our goals with Missouri,'' Weber said. "They hadn't been in any close games. You have to have discipline at the end of games to finish up and make the plays. Up until that point, I felt pretty good about it.

"There's a lot of balance and a lot to close games. You have to find a way to make plays.''

-- Illinois guard Sam Maniscalco's left ankle.

The Illini played three games in five days, a stretch that pushed Maniscalco and his sore ankle to the limit in St. Louis against Mizzou. While Maniscalco hasn't shot it well, Weber said, the experienced point guard is the Illini's floor general.

Following a brief Christmas break, the Illini face five games in 15 days until an eight-day break. Maniscalco looked like he needed a rest vs. Missouri, when he showed some wear and tear.

"He knows he has to have mental toughness, grind it out and play with pain,'' Weber said. "It was good to get him a couple days rest. He's got to be the facilitator, got to be our leader. He can be that guy to get us into things and help with winning baskets.''

-- The strength of the Big Ten.

Ohio State entered the season as the overwhelming favorite in the league race, but the Buckeyes will get a push from a surprisingly deep conference ranked atop the conference RPI. That's a good news/bad news deal. While each win is tougher to get with a loaded league, they mean more on Selection Sunday.

Ohio State kept winning despite losing seniors David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale from last year's team, but the Buckeyes aren't seen as unbeatable.

"They had such dominance last year,'' Weber said. "I don't think they'll be dominant but will be the class of the league.''

The Big Ten "has been a little bit of a surprise,'' he said. "We had unknowns. A lot of other people had unknowns. The unknowns seem to have been answered. You have great depth. There will be a log jam in the middle of the pack.''

John Supinie can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.


  Illinois (11-2) vs. Minnesota (12-1) 6:30 p.m., Assembly Hall, Champaign (BTN, Illini Sports Network)   ILLINOIS (11-2)   ppg     rpg F Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. 7.0 4.8 C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.4 8.2 G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 11.3 4.4 G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 14.3 2.8 G Sam Maniscalco 6-0 Sr. 10.6 2.3   MINNESOTA (12-1)     ppg   rpg F Ralph Sampson III 6-11 Sr. 8.8 4.2 F Rodney Williams 6-7 Jr. 9.8 4.8 G Austin Hollins 6-4 So. 8.7 2.0 G Maverick Ahanmisi 6-2 So. 4.7 2.0 G Julian Welch 6-3 Jr. 9.9 1.8   Noteworthy: The Illini fell out of the AP and USA Today-ESPN polls. . . Illinois leads the series 69-17 vs. Minnesota all-time in games played in Champaign, where the Illini have won 27 of the last 29 against the Gophers. . . Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard earned Big Ten player of the week after averaging 16.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 62.5 percent from the field against Cornell and Missouri last week. . . Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe suffered a season-ending knee injury in November in a loss to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic title game. He was a preseason all-Big Ten pick. . .    Key for Illini: Find more ways to get the ball to Leonard, who must stay closer to the paint.   Key for Gophers: Make them find a way to defend the athletic Williams.   Key quote: "They miss Mbakwe, who would have been one of the best players in the country. '' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.   Prediction: Illinois 70, Minnesota 63is there hasn't been much bad news on the hard wood.