PREVIEW: Illinois vs Ohio State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with Ohio State at the State Farm Center on Thursday night.

Illinois (10-10, 2-5) vs.

Ohio State (13-8, 5-3)

Date & Time: Jan. 28, 8 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois fell 75-73 at Ohio State earlier this month.
  • The Illini still hold a 104-75 advantage in the all-time series, but the Buckeyes have won five in a row.
  • Head coach John Groce is 1-5 against Thad Matta, who he spent eight seasons under as an assistant coach.
  • The Illini are 5-5 against Ohio State in their last 10 meetings in Champaign.
  • Both teams are coming off a win following two-game losing streaks.
  • The Illini are looking to win back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time this season.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate had three points, six assists and no turnovers in a career-high 40 minutes on Saturday at Minnesota. That was the fourth game of his career in which he posted at least six assists without a giveaway.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands posted seven points and three rebounds in 22 minutes on Saturday. He hit four threes at Ohio State earlier this month, and the Illini could use another offensive lift from their sharpshooting freshman.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn has cooled off a bit offensively, while shooting just 32.5 percent from the field over the last three games. But he managed to post 13 points and five rebounds during Saturday's win, while hitting three triples in the second half.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill became the 47th player in Illini history to reach the 1,000-point mark during his career. He stepped up in a big way at Minnesota with 28 points and 10 rebounds. Hill has scored at least 20 points in half of Illinois' games this season.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke finished with nine points and a career-high 16 rebounds on Saturday. He had just one defensive rebound in the previous three games combined, but he finished with 14 defensive rebounds against Minnesota.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan had his most complete performance in an Illini uniform at Minnesota with 14 points and seven rebounds. Groce utilized Morgan and Finke together with success, and there's a good chance he will go back to that quite a bit against the Buckeyes.

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis played just five minutes at Minnesota - finishing with two points and one assist. That was the first game he's played this season without registering double-digit minutes. Lewis missed Illinois' game in Columbus while recovering from the mumps.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played six minutes on Saturday, while recording one rebound. He played six minutes at Indiana as well.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan was in for just 44 seconds at Minnesota. Groce elected to use Austin at a higher volume - saying on Wednesday that he stuck with the rotation that gave his team the best chance to rebound and defend.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams didn't play on Saturday. The Illini are looking for him to show the same flashes that he had against Michigan State and Purdue earlier this month.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne was inactive against Minnesota after having soreness and swelling in his knee following last Thursday's practice. He is doubtful against the Buckeyes as well.

Ohio State Starters

A.J. Harris (FR): Harris made his first career start on Monday against Penn State, as he posted four points, four assists and just one turnover. The 5-foot-9 point guard is a pesky defender and he helps the Buckeyes to apply more on-ball pressure.

Marc Loving (JR): Loving is Ohio State's leading scorer with 13.6 points per game. He scored a career-high 27 points against the Illini earlier this month, while going 14-of-19 from the free-throw line.

Jae'Sean Tate (SO): Tate is a 6-foot-4 forward who makes his living in the paint. He is averaging 11.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season. Tate had 15 points, four rebounds and three assists against Penn State on Monday.

Keita Bates-Diop (SO): The former Illini recruit is showing why he was considered a top-30 prospect in the 2014 class. Bates-Diop is averaging 11.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He is coming off his best showing in the Big Ten with 22 points, eight boards and four blocks.

Daniel Giddens (FR): Like Harris, Giddens also made his first career start against Penn State. He posted five points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. Giddens had five blocks off the bench against the Illini in Columbus.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Consistency down low. The Illini got 23 points and 23 rebounds combined from Morgan and Finke on Saturday. Their collective outing was a big reason why Illinois won the rebounding battle and had more points in the paint - both were firsts in Big Ten play this season. It would be foolish to expect the same numbers, especially against Ohio State's frontline. The Buckeyes have plenty of size, which is why they are a plus-rebounding team and rank top-20 in the country in two-point field goal percentage defense. But the Illini bigs need to step up and show that they can be relied on for consistent production. Scoring is not the issue. The key is their ability to battle in the paint and hold their own on the glass. Groce said that his staff has pushed hard for Morgan to be more physically aggressive and play with more competitive fire. He showed it against Minnesota, but the question is whether he can make it a habit.

2. Continue to utilize the zone. Groce elected to play a heavy dose of 2-3 zone against the Gophers, who have the lowest field goal percentage of any team in the Big Ten. It worked to Illinois' advantage by forcing Minnesota to shoot a high volume of jump shots. In addition, the Illini were able play their big lineup and rebound effectively with zone assignments. This kept Morgan and Finke around the rim, while Hill could crash from the wing and grab his fair share of boards. The same strategy makes sense against the Buckeyes, who want to attack off the dribble and feed it inside. Loving and Kam Williams (47.7 percent from deep) have the ability to get hot from the outside, and Bates-Diop can hit threes as well. But as a whole, Ohio State is 10th in the conference in three-point field goal percentage (34.2 percent). Groce switched to zone late against the Buckeyes in the first meeting, and it resulted in a string of crucial stops. The Illini should find a healthy mix of man and zone - likely starting out with man. But the zone allows them to play big, which helps to limit points in the paint and improve gang rebounding. They can also collapse driving lanes, which will be important against JaQuan Lyle and others.

3. Can Hill and Nunn be great? That was the formula to Illinois' last home win over Purdue. The Boilermakers were No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency at the time, but the Illini duo lit them up for 52 points combined. Ohio State is another good defense squad, as they are No. 19 in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. The Buckeyes are also top-10 in the country in blocked shots, which makes it difficult to find success in the lane. But the Illini need the pair to produce at a high level, as is the case against any good opponent. Hill and Nunn struggled to be efficient when these two teams met in Columbus. They combined to go 9-of-28 from the field and 3-of-13 from beyond the arc. After scoring 28 points against Minnesota, Hill said on Wednesday that he feels the best about his shot since Big Ten play began. If that translates over to this game and Nunn returns to form, the Illini will have a great shot to come out on top.

Prediction

These teams looked pretty evenly matched back in Columbus a few weeks ago. Each game is a different entity, but the Illini will once again have a chance to win what will be a hard-fought battle. Illinois has the benefit of playing at home, as the Orange Krush makes their official return to the State Farm Center. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes will try to improve upon their 1-3 record on the road in the Big Ten. Ohio State lost those three games by an average of more than 23 points, but they faced tough opponents in Indiana, Maryland and Purdue. There's no question this one will be much closer. But the Illini can add to that list in this winnable challenge.

Illinois 70, Ohio State 67


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