After a brief stop at home to face Penn State, the Buckeyes are back on the road tonight when they travel to Champaign to take on Illinois. The two teams met earlier this month in Columbus, with Ohio State earning a 75-73 victory over the Fighting Illini. In the victory Ohio State was carried to victory by a career-high 27 points from Marc Loving. Illinois able put a scare into the Buckeyes by hitting 12 three-pointers in the game.
Following dropping games on the road to Maryland and Purdue, Ohio State regained some confidence with a 66-46 victory over Penn State on Monday night. The Buckeyes put together an outstanding defensive performance, holding an opponent under 50 points for the first time since February 2014 against Minnesota. After taking a 33-26 lead into the halftime break, Ohio State held Penn State to just 20 points in the second half, marking the third time this year that the Buckeyes have held an opponent to 20 points or less in a half.
Last Thursday night against Purdue, Keita Bates-Diop was non-existent on the offensive end, attempting just two shots and failing to score a point in 22 minutes of playing time. That was far from the case on Monday night as Bates-Diop scored 22 points against Penn State. The offensive output from Bates-Diop was his second highest point total of the season, falling just a couple points short of the career-high 24 points he scored in late December against South Carolina State.
Former Ohio State assistant coach John Groce is in his fourth season as Illinois head coach, and things haven't gone exactly as planned. Following an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season with the Fighting Illini, the last two seasons have ended with appearances in the NIT. Illinois will have to turn things around in a hurry if they even want to make the NIT this season. Currently the Fighting Illini are 10-10 this year and just 2-5 in the Big Ten. Illinois does come into this matchup with a little bit of momentum though, as they squeaked by Minnesota 76-71 in overtime on Saturday.
Even with the Fighting Illini struggling this year, Ohio State can't take Illinois lightly. Just a few weeks ago Illinois was able to upset Purdue 84-70 in Champaign behind 30 points from Malcolm Hill and 22 points from Kendrick Nunn. Add in how tough the Fighting Illini played the Buckeyes earlier this month in Columbus, and Illinois won't be an easy out. The Fighting Illini had four players score 14 points in the narrow loss to Ohio State earlier this month. If Illinois can even come close to matching the 12 three-pointers they had in the first meeting, Ohio State will have to be at the top of their game to earn the victory tonight.
Even before the season started, injuries have been a big problem for Illinois this year. After missing last year due to a knee injury, Tracy Abrams was ruled out for the season during the offseason after he suffered a torn Achillies' tendon. Center Mike Thorne Jr. is the third-leading scorer for Illinois this year, averaging 12.9 points per game but he has only been able to play in eight games after undergoing surgery in late November to repair a torn meniscus. The graduate transfer from Charlotte has missed 12 of the last 13 games, only being able to play 16 minutes in the 103-69 loss to Indiana last Tuesday. It is unknown if Thorne Jr. will be able to play tonight after he didn't play in Saturday's overtime victory over Minnesota.
Numbers to know
Since Thad Matta was hired by Ohio State before the start of the 2004-05 season, his Buckeye teams have scored 29,968 points. With 32 points tonight against Illinois, Ohio State will be just the second Big Ten team to score at least 30,000 points during that span. Michigan State has scored 30,070 points over that same time period. Ohio State is averaging 72.4 points per game since the beginning of the 2004-05 season, which is the best among Big Ten teams.
There is a key number that Ohio State should try and get to if they have any designs on earning the victory tonight, and that is 30 defensive rebounds. On Monday night against Penn State, the Buckeyes pulled down 35 defensive rebounds against the Nittany Lions, which improved their record to 60-1 under Thad Matta when they record at least 30 defensive rebounds in a game.
A win by Ohio State tonight would give Thad Matta 138 Big Ten regular season victories, which would tie him for 14th all-time in Big Ten history. Currently in 14th place is former Northwestern coach Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg, who coached the Wildcats from 1927-50 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1973 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Cast of characters
On Monday night Harris got his first start for the Buckeyes, putting in four points and dishing out four assists in 20 minutes. What helped to earn Harris his first career start for the Buckeyes was the 11 points he scored last Thursday against Purdue. Harris has been careful with the basketball over his last six games, committing more than one turnover just once, and committing zero turnovers in three of those six games.
After scoring just three points against Maryland and nine points against Purdue, Loving got back to double figures in scoring on Monday night, netting 11 points against Penn State. Even with his diminished scoring numbers lately, Loving is still leading Ohio State with 13.6 points per game. Last time against Illinois, Loving scored a career-high 27 points. The Buckeyes will need Loving to be just as aggressive this time against the Fighting Illini, as earlier in the month Loving went to the free throw line 14 times against Illinois, hitting 14 of those attempts.
The junior guard is Illinois' leading scorer, averaging 18.7 points per game. In the overtime win over Minnesota on Saturday, Hill scored 28 points and 10 rebounds. In three of the last four games, Hill has scored at least 20 points. The 30 points Hill scored in the upset win over Purdue was only bested by the 34 points he scored earlier in the year against South Dakota. Hill has registered four double-doubles so far this season.
Nunn is the Fighting Illini's second-leading scorer this season, averaging 17.5 points per game. Despite missing six games so far this season, Nunn has hit 41 three-pointers, which is second on the team to the 44 three-pointers hit by Jalen Coleman-Lands. Six of those three-pointers came in December in a 69-65 win over Yale, where Nunn scored a season-high 28 points. In the six Big Ten games Nunn has played in this year, he has hit at least two three-pointers in each contest.
How to watch
Game time: 9:00 p.m. ET
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1
TV: Big Ten Network