Value City Arena
The only good thing about about Ohio State's early January free fall? It's still rather early.
The Buckeyes failed to come up with big baskets Monday night in Lincoln and subsequently lost its fourth consecutive Big Ten game.
As the calendar will soon shift to February, the Buckeyes have a chance to turn things around versus an Illinois Fighting Illini team that Ohio State is 42-40 against all-time in Columbus.
Both teams come into the game in unfamiliar territory. Ohio State is 2-4 in Big Ten conference play and find themselves tied for 8th in the conference standings. The Buckeyes have slid from No. 3 in the AP Poll all the way to No. 17 in two weeks' time.
Meanwhile, Illinois comes into Columbus Thursday night also riding a four-game losing skid after former Ohio University head coach, John Groce, had his Fighting Illini holding a solid 11-2 mark after non-conference play.
Since both teams have recently hit the brakes in what seemed to be a promising season, this game will have a lot to do with the Big Ten title race and seeding in March. Ohio State still figures to easily make it into the NCAA Tournament but they need to find themselves quickly before the Big Ten competition leaves them in the dust and they end up with a much lower seed than Thad Matta's teams are accustomed. On the other hand, Illinois is in search of its first signature win of the season and the Buckeyes seem to be issuing them out generously of late.
Many of Ohio State's issues have come on the offensive end. The Buckeyes go into scoring droughts often at the biggest moments of close games. They need to create more offense from strong defensive play, but turnovers have allowed opponents to get out and run before the Buckeyes can get set.
The Buckeyes still rank in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense and three-point field goal percentage defense. If Craft and Scott can take care of the ball better on offense, Ohio State should be able to hold Illinois in check. The Fighting Illini are not very adept at sharing the basketball, which should allow for the Buckeyes to swarm ball handlers and cut off penetration.
It would be no surprise if both Thad Matta and John Groce experiment with their lineups in this one to get the attention of some of the starters and search for a spark.
The Buckeyes most definitely need a more energetic showing from Amir Williams down low and they especially need senior guard Aaron Craft to be more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Craft becomes a liability on the court when he doesn't look for his own shot or look to create open looks for others.
Williams' focus on the court often becomes an issue as well. The near 7-footer simply cannot jog back on defense and not dial back in just because things didn't go as they should've on the offensive end. Williams must be a force on the offensive and defensive boards alike as well as a solid back end to Ohio State's stout defense.
This matchup could well come down to the final minutes of the game once again and which ever team is willing to get dirty and clean up the backboard will likely eventually pick up the victory Thursday night.
Numbers to Know
The Buckeyes have turned the ball over a whopping 16 times per game in the midst of their four-game losing streak. This development is very troubling considering the fact that Ohio State starts two "point guards" in its backcourt. With the lack of outside shooting and the absence of a go-to scorer, the Buckeyes' turnovers have made it damn near impossible for them to keep pace with their opponents during Big Ten play.
Illinois comes into the Schottenstein Center Thursday ranked 11th in the Big Ten in assists per game at a 10.4 clip. The Illini start three guards but often they get lost in going one-on-one with defenders instead of spreading the wealth with each other. Though senior guard Joseph Bertrand is known mostly as a scorer, he must take it upon himself to get his teammates involved in the action.
Both teams are coming into Thursday night riding four-game losing streaks. Illinois recently fell to the same Michigan State team that started Ohio State's skid. The Buckeyes desperately need a victory but the Fighting Illini will have the same level of intensity. Ohio State needs to play mistake free basketball to get back to its winning ways.
Cast of Characters
This 6'4 guard from Champaign will be the main focus of Ohio State's scouting report. The redshirt junior is averaging 17.1 points per game and can get buckets in bunches. Fortunately for Ohio State, Rice does most of his damage inside the three-point arc. The Buckeyes sometimes struggle defending the long range shots in big games.
Illinois brings this junior center to the table against an Ohio State team has struggled against size in recent games. Egwu stands tall at 6'11 and will cause a lot problems for the Buckeye front line when Amir Williams leaves the game. The Buckeyes will need to keep him off the offensive boards, which is something they failed to do on the road against Minnesota and Nebraska.
This freshman was not as highly touted as other Thad Matta recruits, but he is slowly gaining the trust of Coach Matta day by day. Matta seemed to fall in love with the smaller lineup that featured Loving and Laquinton Ross in the front court without a true center. Eventually that method got the Buckeyes in trouble against Minnesota's size, but expect Loving to get more playing time against the Illini, especially if Matta decides to tinker with the starting lineup.
During Ohio State's struggles, Sam Thompson seems to be the most consistent player the Buckeyes have in the arsenal. The junior forward appears to be settling in nicely to his role coming off the bench as he leads all Ohio State bench scorers with 7.9 points per game. Thompson is also a solid perimeter defender and seems to slip back door for a thunderous slam every game, which could be huge Thursday in terms of getting the crowd involved.
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