PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Ohio State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' Big Ten home opener against Ohio State on New Year's Day.

Illinois (10-4, 0-1) vs.

Ohio State (10-3, 0-0)

Date & Time: Jan. 1, 6 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois gets set for their first home game since Dec. 10 against Central Michigan.
  • The Illini are 18-18 at home in Big Ten games under John Groce.
  • Groce is 9-22 at Illinois in the month of January.
  • Ohio State will play their first Big Ten game after winning their last two in the nonconference.
  • The Buckeyes are 166-75 in Big Ten play under Thad Matta.
  • Ohio State is 9-3 in Big Ten openers with Matta at the helm.
  • The Buckeyes are 76-104 all-time against Illinois and 27-61 in Champaign.
  • Ohio State has won the last six in the series, including two January wins against Illinois last season.

Projected Starters

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams had his lowest point total of the season in the Big Ten opener with just two points on 1-of-10 shooting. He was 0-of-6 from three, and he's had just five points, two assists and five turnovers in the last two games combined.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands did not play well at Maryland. He had four points and hit two of his five shots, but he had three turnovers, four fouls and got exploited defensively.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill was one of the only Illini who played well enough to win on Tuesday. He totaled a game-high 21 points with seven rebounds. Hill had 26 points combined in two games against the Buckeyes last season. He may need close to that on Sunday, unless his supporting cast comes back to life.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black has slumped over the last three games after a scalding-hot start. He had five points and four rebounds at Maryland, but he was just 1-of-5 from the field. He has just nine points combined in the last three games.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had 10 points and four rebounds on Tuesday. He went 5-of-9 from the field, but some of his misses were bad ones. He is still converting more than 60 percent of his attempts on the season, though.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan came back to earth at Maryland following two straight double-doubles. He had just five points and three rebounds in College Park, where he totaled his first career double-double last season. The Illini need consistency from him right now.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate played significant minutes against Maryland's two-point guard lineup, but he provided very little for the Illini. He was 0-of-4 from the field with no points. He is an extreme liability on the perimeter, and the Terps rotated their defense accordingly.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke hit one shot in 15 minutes for five points to go along with three rebounds. But he was not good at all defensively -- like most of Illinois' roster.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas got an opportunity in the second half on Tuesday, and he posted three points, two assists and a turnover in 10 minutes. He needs to play more in the regular rotation.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams played nine minutes at Maryland and he hit one of his four shot attempts. He's made at least one shot in each of the last five games.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan missed his only shot attempt in eight minutes on Tuesday. He didn't play in the previous three games.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols made his first career bucket at Maryland, and he also posted three rebounds in just four minutes of action. He is another player the Illini fan base would like to see more of going forward.

Ohio State Starters

JaQuan Lyle (SO): Lyle is averaging 10.8 points and 5.9 assists per game this season. Groce praised the former Illini target on Friday for his outstanding facilitating ability. Lyle can be boom or bust for the Buckeyes in different parts of the game with his talent, and also his knack to struggle with turnovers and his jump shot.

Kam Williams (JR): Williams is one to watch from beyond the arc, as he has hit nearly 43 percent of his attempts this season. He is averaging 10.8 points per game, but he's had just one double-digit outing in the last five games.

Marc Loving (SR): Loving is averaging 11.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his senior season. He exploded for 27 points and got to the line 19 times against the Illini in Columbus last year.

Jae'Sean Tate (JR): Tate leads the Buckeyes with 14.3 points per game, and he's scored in double figures in all but one of their 13 games this season. The 6-foot-4 forward gets after it on the glass, and he has three double-doubles on the year.

Trevor Thompson (JR): The 7-foot junior has been a monster on the glass for Ohio State with a team-high 9.2 rebounds per game. He had 17 points and 17 rebounds against UCONN earlier this month, and he's had almost 12 rebounds per contest since the start of December.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. An energized start. The Illini just got flat out embarrassed in the Big Ten opener. They didn't look ready to play. They didn't respond to adversity. They were shell-shocked. That shouldn't happen for the oldest and most experienced team in the Big Ten. Illinois should take that to heart. You'd expect the same with the coaching staff, who still has to show that they are the answer beyond the season. Groce talked about having a galvanized group heading into this season. Let's see that hunger and fight with the chips on the table -- and the Illini have to play that way from the tip. Maryland got out to a 15-4 lead after less than eight minutes ticked off the clock on Tuesday. Illinois should look to set the tone early in this one.

2. Help for Malcolm. Hill had 21 points on 10 shots on Tuesday. The rest of the Illini had 38 points going 15-of-49 (30.6 percent) with 16 turnovers. They had just 11 points in the first half and shot lower than 18 percent. Illinois has to give their best player a chance by doing their part as well. A big portion of the focus goes to Abrams and Black -- the two other Illini who average double figures on the season. But they have not been up to par the last two games. Going 3-of-21 for 10 combined points in those two games is not where Hill's sidekicks need to be. You can throw Morgan in there too. When these guys show up, Illinois has a chance to beat anyone in the conference -- assuming they defend.

3. Defend. That leads into the final area of focus. Unfortunately, you haven't been able to assume anything with Illinois' defense for quite some time. Maryland blew past them to the hoop like a layup line. Simple ball-screens exploited the Illini. Their bigs struggled to help and recover. And sometimes, the Terps didn't even need a screen to get a wide open lane to the rim. On Friday, Abrams said that defensive showing 'wasn't us'. He added that his biggest point of emphasis for the team heading into this game is to defend for 40 minutes. VCU has been the only quality opponent that the Illini have successfully defended for the entirety of a game. They need to come close against the Buckeyes, who like to go to the rack. They make more than 56 percent of their two-point field goals, which is 12th in the country. Loving killed Illinois on drives last year that drew contact. Tate likes to go to the hoop. Ohio State can dump it inside as well. Coming off a game of giving up 48 points in the paint is scary. And you know that Ohio State will defend at the other end with their length.

Prediction

A new year isn't going to bring a new team to the State Farm Center. At least, not yet. But Illinois doesn't need one right now. They still have enough talent to win games in this conference. There's still time and opportunity to do it. What they do absolutely need is a win in this game. And they should play like it. Look for Abrams and Black to come back to life on the home floor. The Illini have to have it against this tough defensive team, which ranks 31st nationally in defensive efficiency. Illinois must take care of the ball as well. The Buckeyes are prone to turnovers too. This should be a grind-it-out type of game. Illinois does just enough to get it done at home.

Illinois 68, Ohio State 65


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