The road to a fourth consecutive B1G title gets significantly more difficult on Saturday, with the No. 8 Buckeyes (11-2, 1-0) visiting No. 11 Illinois (13-2, 0-1) at Assembly Hall. The Fighting Illini will be in a mood after dropping their B1G opener at Purdue on Wednesday, 68-61. In fact, Illinois has dropped two of its last three after a 12-0 start under first-year coach John Groce—an old friend who not only knocked TTUN out of last year’s NCAA tournament while at Ohio University, but also spent 2005-08 on Thad Matta’s staff at Ohio State. The game tips off at 2:15 p.m. on the BTN.
The Buckeyes and Illini split last season’s series with each team winning at home. You may recall this was a difficult fixture for the Buckeyes last season. Brandon Paul went off for 43 points fueled by 8/10 three-point shooting, leading the Illini to a 79-74 home win. By himself, Paul scored only one fewer point than Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas combined. The Illini are always tough at home (7-0 this year), possibly because Assembly Hall looks like a spaceship.
Illinois features three returning starters from last season, including Paul (#3), a senior who leads his team in minutes per game (32.4), points per game (18.5), rebounds per game (5.0), and assists per game (3.5). He’s hitting 37.9% outside the arc, but we’ve seen what he can do when he gets hot. For what it’s worth, Paul was held to nine points in the rematch in Columbus last year on 2/9 shooting, but that was the sixth straight Illini loss in a 1-9 close to the season, which cost Bruce Weber his job. Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams (#13) started 19 games last year. He’s second on the team in scoring average (12.1), first in steals (24) and second in assists (50).
Senior guard D.J. Richardson (#1) adds 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Senior forward Tyler Griffey is 6-9, but plays a perimeter game, hitting 45.3% beyond the arc and pulls down only 3.3 rips per contest. He averages 9.1 points. Rounding out the starters is sophomore forward/center Nnanna Egwu (#32), who is 6-11, but his size hasn’t translated to much production yet. He averages six points and four rebounds. Still, he may prove productive against the two-headed beast of Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel if it plays lethargically. Nnanna has a sister named Nnenna, who attends Purdue, which is apropos of nothing but interesting nonetheless.
Redshirt junior guard Joseph Bertrand (#2) provides some matchup problems off the bench. He’s a fairly big guy at 6-6 and is hitting 45.5% of his threes. We’ll also see a fair bit of senior transfer forward Sam McLaurin (#0) and sophomore guard/forward Myke Henry (#20).
Illinois wins if…Brandon Paul goes HAM like he did last year. Paul has been inconsistent at times but he annihilated the Buckeyes in Champaign last year. Likewise, if Ohio State struggles to stop Richardson and Abrams, the Illini have enough athletes to win. Illinois would also be in great shape if Ohio State’s recent trend of laying bricks on jump shots continues. Rebounding will be a factor. The Illini are 11th in the B1G in rebounding margin per game (+0.3) and they’ll probably need to win on the glass to win the game.
Ohio State wins if…it controls the boards per usual and Deshaun Thomas scores his average on a fairly low number of shots, and the Buckeyes keep two of the Paul/Richardson/Abrams trio under wraps. I think one can have a big game (not as big as Paul’s last year) but if two of these guys do, it could be a rough night. Ohio State’s scoring defense has been excellent, so that’s doable. Additionally, Ohio State must shoot at least in the 42-45% range from the field and not settle for clanging long triples. Illinois is 11th in the B1G in scoring defense, so the Buckeyes should get good looks.
Notes: Ohio State is just 65-100 in the all-time series against Illinois (34-59 on the road), but is 11-4 under Thad Matta…The Buckeyes have taken 11 of the last 14 meetings and four of the last six in Champaign…Matta will be coaching his 300th game at Ohio State. Only Harold G. Olsen (456) and Fred Taylor (455) have previously reached that mark… Aaron Craft is 11 steals from tying Jay Burson’s career OSU mark of 204…With two assists, Craft will pass Mark Baker for fourth on the school’s all-time list. Jamar Butler, Kelvin Ransey and Curtis Wilson have the top three spots…Thomas needs 24 points to pass Lawrence Funderburke for 34th on the OSU career scoring list…Kevin Kugler and Jim Jackson will call the game for BTN.
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