When we last saw the Buckeyes, we were busy hoping, nay praying, for a Sam Thompson highlight that would break us from the apathy of a boat race of still relative Big Ten newbie (you better believe they're counting the days until Maryland and Rutgers mix things up), Nebraska. We received two (of which, one can be seen here), and so it was good.
But now Thad Matta's eighth ranked Ohio State side face their first road challenge since the second half Duke debacle as the Buckeyes travel to Champaign-Urbana and always to do battle with former top Ohio State assistant John Groce and the 11th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini. Groce, as you likely well recall, was also the architect behind Ohio's Sweet Sixteen berth last season.
Following Groce's recruiting of Greg Oden and B.J. Mullens, he amassed a four year run which saw the Bobcats rise to quasi-national prominence with an upset win over 3rd seed Georgetown in one NCAA tourney and then last year's riveting wins over Michigan and South Florida (and near miss against North Carolina in overtime). Under his replacement, former outstanding mediocre TCU coach Jim Christian, the Bobcats have since lost to 6-6 Winthrop despite returning the crux of last year's tournament run team.
Groce quickly proved his bonafides with a (though not exactly in stark contrast to Bruce Weber teams of recent years' season beginnings) 12-0 start, but the team has since lost to both fringe top 10 team Missouri and the extremely variable Purdue Boilermakers this past Wednesday in West Lafayette. In that game, one in which the Illini led by two at halftime, they'd go on to be outscored 37-28 in the second half, frustrated by Purdue's dictation of tempo as well as struggling to find their own shots (in part due to Matt Painter's bunch's stout defense).
The Buckeyes are no strangers to high caliber defense. Unfortunately they're also all too familiar with unevenness. They certainly looked comfortable in their own skin during Wednesday evening's contest against Nebraska, however, jumping out to a 36-17 halftime lead. The Huskers were ultimately limited to just 30.9% shooting from the field and the Buckeyes forced fourteen turnovers in the win. To take down the Illini, Ohio State will need more of the same.
Brandon Paul is of course the engine that makes Illinois go. Paul previously had been more of an off guard but in John Groce's offense, everything moves through him. The 6-4 Paul remains the team's leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game while also chipping in 5 rebounds per to go along with 3.5 assists. Paul's best game of the year hands down was his 35 point exlposion in an upset of then #10 Gonzaga. During the 85-74 road victory, Paul was 10-16 from the field, also hitting 5-of-9 three point attempts.
Joining Paul in the backcourt is the team's second leading scorer, Tracy Abrams. The 6-1 product of the Chicago area (which you have to imagine Groce will focus on recruiting during his stay in Champaign) is averaging 12.1 points per game and 3.3 assists in this his second year with the program. He struggled shooting the ball against Purdue, but then again, so did pretty much everyone else in orange-and-white.
D.J. Richardson is the other other guard for the Illini. The 6-3 senior from Peoria has actually seen his scoring output decrease from his junior year, now averaging just 10.7 points per game (versus 11.6 last year). His rebounds are up from 3 to 4.7 rpg, however, and he's also distributing the ball slightly better (1.9 apg to 1.7 a year prior). He's not shooting the ball quite as much while also playing slightly less minutes, but will be game for the opportunity if given the chance.
The Illini's best front court scorer is senior forward, Tyler Griffey. Averaging 9.1 points per game and 3.3 rebounds per, he won't set the world on fire, but is an effective 6-9 big. I remember when a friend from Ohio State asked me before Griffey's freshman year if he was Ken Griffey Jr's son. Still no.
The final Illinois starter is Nnanna Egwu, a 6-11 sophomore also from the Chi. He's raw, but shows flashes of potential here and there. Joseph Bertrand, a guard, and Sam McLaurin, a forward, are the Illini's principle go-to subs.
For all Ohio State's woes finding a second scorer, it continues to be more and more apparent that Lenzelle Smith's weight in gold to the team is almost unmeasurable. When Lenzelle's on offensively, everyone else on the Buckeyes' offense benefits. His defensive fortitude is no secret, and given Illinois' breadth of guards, he'll likely play a key role in determining the outcome of this one
Holy war. The Buckeyes may feel relatively stronger on paper, but this one will prove to be a closer battle than some might otherwise like. Illinois may even feel in control for stretches, but Ohio State should have the edge when push comes to shove. Even if OSU's lack of a pure second scorer rears its ugly head again, we'll give the edge to Ohio State's lone dominant offensive force (Deshaun Thomas) than Illinois' (Paul). Ohio State 74 - Illinois 70.