The 23rd-ranked Buckeyes will look to start the season out with a victory as they face off against the Illinois State Redbirds inside Value City Arena Wednesday afternoon. This will be the first meeting ever between the two programs, who worked together to organize a small multi-team event in Columbus after the Buckeyes withdrew from the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in South Dakota weeks ago.
Eight months after the NCAA Tournament was cancelled over concerns regarding COVID-19, college basketball is set to return — albeit with several changes. Firstly, there will not be fans in attendance at Ohio State home games. Second, each team will take COVID tests three times per week, and any team that produces a positive test will be forced to modify that week’s schedule to ensure the safety of players, coaches, and officials. If a positive test is produced by a player or coach within 24 hours of a scheduled game, that game will most likely be cancelled or postponed.
For today’s game vs ISU, both teams have agreed to test on Tuesday and Wednesday, and any positive tests between the two teams would lead to a postponement. As of early Wednesday morning there was no news of positive tests between the two teams.
What is not changing is what happens between the lines. No. 23 Ohio State is looking to build on their late-season momentum from last year, and Illinois State is hoping to erase the memory of a 10-21 season where they came in ninth place in the Missouri Valley Conference. It was the worst season on record for ninth-year head coach Dan Muller, who has compiled a 149-117 record overall and tied for a share of the MVC title in 2016-17.
It isn’t going to get easier for the Redbirds either as their leading scorer from last season, Zach Copeland, graduated, and their second-leading scorer Keith Fisher III opted out of this season before it began. He cited concerns around COVID-19 and the birth of his newborn daughter as his reasons for sitting out.
With their two leading scorers from last season gone, they will be led by sophomore guard D.J. Horne, who averaged 8.7 points per game last season and was the Redbirds’ third-leading scorer. Guards Antonio Reeves (7.2 PTS) and Dedric Boyd (6.1 PTS) are other key contributors from last year’s ISU team. Illinois State is the 239th best team in the country, according to KenPom.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, return three starters from last year’s team in Kyle Young, Duane Washington Jr., and CJ Walker. Sophomore E.J. Liddell is almost guaranteed to start this afternoon as well, and the final spot is anyone’s guess. Justice Sueing, Justin Ahrens, and Jimmy Sotos all have a chance to start in place of the injured Seth Towns, but all three will see the floor on Wednesday afternoon.
A few key things to watch on Wednesday in Ohio State’s first action in eight months:
Who does Chris Holtmann start in place of Towns?
The Buckeyes Head Coach has been known to fiddle with the lineup from time to time, but someone will be given an opportunity to start the season opener and potentially run with it (until Towns returns).
How do the freshmen look?
Holtmann said weeks ago that both Zed Key and Eugene Brown III would work themselves into the rotation and neither would redshirt. But how soon does Holtmann let them check in, and how comfortable do the two of them look?
How healthy are Kyle Young, Musa Jallow, and Justice Sueing?
It was announced on Monday that Jallow (ankle) would be a “game time decision”. But if he plays, how comfortable does he look moving laterally on that surgically repaired ankle? The same goes for Sueing’s foot, which was operated on last year, and Kyle Young’s well... whole lower body it seems.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 95.3%
Spread: Ohio State by 18
2:00 p.m. ET
While Chris Holtmann has to be grateful that two teams volunteered to travel to Columbus to play the Buckeyes, these visiting teams (UMass-Lowell is next up) are not here just to sightsee. Illinois State is gunning to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, and a road win against a ranked Ohio State team is their best opportunity at a resume-boosting win.
Unfortunately for the Redbirds, they are severely outgunned in this matchup, especially down low. Illinois State has very little in terms of post presence, and they’ll have to match up with the likes of Kyle Young and E.J. Liddell all afternoon. Look for CJ Walker to get those two involved early and often, taking advantage of the obvious size and talent advantage. Ohio State is the superior team, but they will need to shake off the rust quickly to avoid acquiring a nasty blemish on their tournament resume right off the bat.