For Thad Matta’s team, a long holiday break may be just what the doctor ordered. After playing three games in six days, culminating in a squeaker of a win against UNC-Asheville, the Buckeyes looked to be in need of a little rest before the start of conference play.
It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde start to the season for Ohio State. Two of their three losses, to Virginia and UCLA, were perfectly understandable; the other defeat, at the hands of lowly Florida Atlantic, was not. FAU is (as of press time) 300th in the country in points scored.
Following a blowout win against the Youngstown State Penguins (<3 u, Coach Tressel), Ohio State edged UNC-Asheville, 79-77. A pair of 17-point efforts from Jae’Sean Tate and Jaquan Lyle led the way, and Kam Williams slammed the door shut by hitting a pair of free throws with four seconds to go to hand the Buckeyes their 10th win of the season.
Now Matta’s squad will be tasked with shutting down an Illinois team with its own share of ups and downs in the season’s early going. The Illini will be playing on shorter rest than the Buckeyes, thanks to an 84-59 drubbing at the hands of Maryland a few days after Christmas. It was their second loss of more than 25 points this season.
The Big Ten—which features just three AP top 25 teams—feels wide open. A solid win for the Buckeyes here would be a great way to kick off conference play and set the tone for a tough stretch against the midwest’s traditional powers.
Numbers to know
So far, it’s been an uninspiring season for the Buckeyes offensively. Their 75 points per game average puts them at just 160th nationally (out of 351), and they’ve struggled to find the kind of rhythm that drove the team in years past. They’ve cleared 80 points just once in 13 games, during a 111-70 thrashing of Marshall, and have failed to hit 70 four times.
Ohio State’s defense has been excellent all year, dragging good teams like Virginia into rock fights and keeping games close late. But that won’t matter if they can’t start lighting up the scoreboard with more consistency. Illinois, 173rd nationally in points allowed (71.3/game), might give them a chance to do that.
Out of 13 games, the Buckeyes have played just three on the road. They opened the season with a solid 10-point win over a feisty Navy team, then lost to Virginia and UCLA away from Columbus. Thad Matta’s team travels to Champaign for their Big Ten opener, putting the Buckeyes in hostile territory—an environment they’ve rarely experienced in this young season.
Ohio State is just 7-13 on the road in the last two years (8-15 if you count the start of this one). Beating Illinois on their own court isn’t anybody’s definition of a signature win, but it could help staunch the bleeding away from home.
Opposing teams have turned Illinois over 199 times in their 14 games this year. That’s good for a robust No. 300 ranking nationally, per Sports Reference. The Buckeyes haven’t lacked for defenders with quick hands and a willingness to scrap in recent years, and this year is no exception. If Jaquan Lyle and Kam Williams do the dirty work on defense, we’ve seen that they can force players like Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate (who lead the Illini in turnovers) into costly mistakes. Since this game doesn’t seem likely to be a barn-burner, every possession is going to matter; the Buckeyes are well equipped to end a few of Illinois’ attempts early by forcing turnovers.
Cast of characters
One of the Buckeyes’ longest-tenured players, Williams shares the team lead for steals per game and is Ohio State’s best three-point shooter. He is also one of the streakiest offensive players on the roster: he’s turned in lights-out performances (5-6 from deep and 23 total points against Navy) and unwatchable ones (1-7 from deep and 3 total points against UConn). He couldn’t hit the three ball against UCLA, either, but seems to have regained a bit of his mojo in the team’s last two contests.
We’ve mentioned Illinois’ generous defense; that stat also applies to their three-point defense, which ranks just 123rd nationally (by percentage). This game seems as good a time as any for Killa Kam to get back into the groove he found early in the year against the likes of Navy.
Ohio State’s leading scorer is nothing if not consistent. He’s reached double digits in all but one game this season, and his 17 points against UNC-Asheville allowed the Buckeyes to escape without another ugly black mark on their record. It’ll be on Tate to drive Thad Matta’s offense and secure a victory in what looks like a very winnable game against John Groce’s Illini. He’s struggled from the free throw line—he’s no Williams in that respect—but has otherwise turned in solid performances (if not explosive ones) all season.
Illinois’ senior shooting guard, Malcolm Hill, is far and away the most complete player on the team. He leads all Illini in scoring with 18.6 points per game, and is among the team leaders in steals, assists, and free throw shooting. Hill is coming off of back-to-back 21-point performances, including his showing as the lone bright spot for the Illini against Maryland earlier this week. He’ll be the focal point for John Groce’s offensive game plan when the Buckeyes come to Champaign, and odds are he’ll find a way to put points on the scoreboard—inside, outside, or from the line.
Hill might be the most complete scorer on the Illini, but point guard Tracy Abrams is even better than him from deep. Besides being able to hit threes, “Old Man” Abrams—who missed two full seasons with injury—is a capable distributor whose production doesn’t seemed to have suffered despite all his time away from basketball. Since making his comeback, he’s been able to up his scoring output and cut down on his turnovers, making him a worthy opponent for this stingy Buckeye defense.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
TV: Big Ten Network