Ohio State coach Thad Matta
John Groce can win a tournament game or two. The Illinois coach proved that in the Maui Invitational this season and in two NCAA Tournaments at Ohio.
His first foray into the Big Ten regular season, though, is not off to a great start with a 68-61 loss to Purdue, one of a handful of teams in the league that will struggle for a postseason berth.
With two losses in the last three games, Groce will try to coax his team into regaining its early season from, but he’ll have to defeat a mentor to do it.
Groce served as an assistant for Ohio State coach Thad Matta from 2001-08 at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State, where he was recruited Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook to Columbus.
The Oden-Conley Ohio State team with Matta and Groce on the same bench reached the Final Four in 2007. When the two face off Saturday in Champaign, the game will be a key early matchup for momentum in a grueling Big Ten.
After the losses to Missouri and Purdue in the last three games, Illinois is looking to prove it has the staying power that eluded former coach Bruce Weber in his latter seasons in Champaign.
Ohio State’s situation isn’t as pressing, but the Buckeyes are looking to show they’re an upper-echelon Big Ten team. Ohio State saw a lead evaporate against Duke in a 73-68 loss on Nov. 28. Similarly, Kansas pulled away from Ohio State in a 74-66 victory on Dec. 22. A road win at Illinois could end up a key resume-builder for the postseason.
Game of the week
Ohio State probable starters
Illinois probable starters
Illinois guard Brandon Paul
Brandon Paul has been the centerpiece to Illinois’ hot start the season, but as the 6-4 senior goes, so does Illinois. Paul takes his share of shots from the floor -- nearly 13 per game -- so when he’s not efficient, Illinois can struggle. Paul scored 15 points on 10 attempts and seven attempts from 3-point range in the loss to Purdue, which at least was a step up from recent games. Paul was 8 of 30 from the field and 2 of 13 from beyond the arc against Auburn and Missouri before the Purdue loss. He’ll be defended by one of the best defenders in the country in Aaron Craft. In his last game against Nebraska, Craft didn’t score, but he had eight assists and six rebounds while playing relentless defense. But that was against Nebraska, and Ohio State isn’t that far removed from another big guard, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, taking over a game. To stop Illinois, Ohio State will need to guard the 3-point line: Illinois is dependent on the 3-pointer to win. Paul and D.J. Richardson have attempted more than 100 shots from beyond the arc this season as Illinois gains 37.3 percent of its overall scoring from 3-point land.
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With fellow 2010 signee Jared Sullinger gone to the NBA, Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas continues to enjoy the scoring breakthrough he expected to have. Thomas is averaging 19.9 points per game on 15.3 shots from the floor. The 6-7 lefty who can step out to shoot for 3s could be a matchup problem for the Illinois frontcourt. Thomas also averages seven rebounds per game for a team that should have the advantage on the glass. Outside of Tyler Griffey’s 9.1 points per game, Illinois doesn’t bring much scoring on the front line. The 6-11 Nnanna Egwu could be a defensive troublemaker for the Buckeyes after picking up five blocks against Purdue. After Thomas, Ohio State’s best offensive threat from inside is the 6-7 LaQuinton Ross off the bench, but he hasn’t been a consistent option.
Illinois depends on guard Joseph Bertrand and forward Sam McLaurin on the bench, though Illinois is better off with Bertrand delivering in smaller doses. Ohio State is deeper than it’s been in recent years with eight players averaging 15 minutes per game. Ross leads the way with 9.5 points in 19.1 minutes per game. Guard Shannon Scott and center Amir Williams are also key players off the bench for Ohio State.
Both teams are a work in progress. Illinois needs to find away to balance its 3-point shooting with attacking the basket. Ohio State is looking for a secondary scorer beyond Thomas. Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., forward Sam Thompson and Ross have not proven to be consistent enough to take the heat off Thomas. These will be X-Factors for both teams as they try to navigate the Big Ten.
Despite Illinois’ 12-0 start, John Groce’s team garnered skepticism. In recent weeks, that’s turned out to be warranted. Illinois may finish in the top half of the Big Ten, but the Illini aren’t the most balanced or efficient team in the Big Ten. Ohio State has its flaws, but Deshaun Thomas’ scoring and Aaron Craft’s defense may be too much for a bruised Illinois to handle, even at home.
Ohio State 75, Illinois 67