Buckeyes Face Rough Big Ten Opener

Jim O'Brien's Ohio State men's basketball team faces a tall order as it opens Big Ten play tonight at Illinois' Assembly Hall (9 p.m., ESPN-Plus), where the Illini have won 22 straight and 44 of their last 45. Click this free link for details on the game.

After a nonconference schedule of missed opportunities, Ohio State opens Big Ten play Wednesday night (9 p.m., ESPN-Plus) at one of the conference's toughest venues, Illinois' Assembly Hall.

The Buckeyes (8-5) have lost eight of their last nine visits to Champaign, including a 76-57 loss there last year. In that game, Illinois led by as many as 32 points before a late OSU run. Of course, the teams were rematches in the Big Ten tournament finals in March, where Illinois rolled again 72-58.

Illinois (9-2) is ranked 19th nationally with notable wins over Temple, Arkansas, Missouri and Memphis. The Illini lost to North Carolina 88-81 at Greensboro, N.C., and also lost to Providence 70-51 at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City. Illinois has won its last five outings, including an 80-73 overtime win over Illinois State last Saturday.

"They are very, very good," OSU coach Jim O'Brien said. "They have very good guard play. They're big guys are playing well. They have five guys averaging in double figures, which is always good. You can't key on one or two guys.

"And I don't know the numbers, but they almost seem invincible at home."

We have those numbers, and they aren't pretty: Illinois is 44-1 (.978) at the Assembly Hall over the last 3-1/2 years, with the only loss coming to Michigan State in 2002. Since then, the Illini have won 22 straight at the Hall, a winning streak that ranks fourth nationally behind Duke (34), Pittsburgh (33) and Creighton (24). Illinois is 56-2 (.966) at the Assembly Hall over the past 4-½ seasons, the best home record in the nation over that period.

Maybe even more daunting than the building will be the personnel. Five Illini players average in double figures for an offense that is posting nearly 80 points a game vs. non-conference foes. Sophomore Deron Williams tops the Illini with 13.8 points a game. He is followed by Roger Powell (13.5 ppg.), Dee Brown (12.1 ppg.), James Augustine (11.6 ppg.) and Luther Head (10.0 ppg.). Augustine is the team's leading rebounder with 9.3 boards a contest.

The game will be Bruce Webber's Big Ten debut as the Illinois coach. A former Purdue assistant, Webber compiled a 103-54 record in five seasons at Southern Illinois.

On the flip side, Ohio State comes in off an 80-72 home loss to Bob Knight's Texas Tech team on Sunday. In terms of a silver lining, this was OSU's first single-digit defeat after its first four losses were lopsided.

"There's a lot of stuff that still kind of frustrates me, but I think we are playing a lot better," O‘Brien said. "We're more organized and guys are starting to grasp some of the things. But we are still doing some of the things we can't do if we expect to win games."

O'Brien seems to have found a keeper in would-be walk-on guard Nick Dials, who netted a team-high 15 points in the loss to Texas Tech.

Dials hit only 4 of 12 shots from the floor, but was 3 of 7 on three-point tries. He also had five rebounds, four steals and three assists.

"He didn't shoot the ball in that game," O‘Brien said. "He did make some threes. I think he handled himself fine. If you want to grade his performance against a higher caliber opponent, I think he graded out fine."

Since entering the starting lineup four games ago, Dials has averaged almost 10 points a game. He also boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of 14-4.

O'Brien was asked what it means if Dials, who wasn't even playing three weeks ago, has suddenly become the team's most consistent player.

"I'm sure it says a lot," O‘Brien said. "It says a lot about Nick in a positive way and perhaps not so positive about our other guys. I prefer to talk about how very positive this is for Nick."

Reporters asked Dials what he thought about his first Big Ten road game.

"I have no idea what to expect," Dials said. "I've never been there before. I couldn't tell you what to expect. I'm just trying to concentrate on what we're supposed to do. If we control the game like we want to, we should be all right."

When asked about his observations of the Illini, Dials said, "They move very well without the ball. They distribute the ball and they like to run. They like to get back on transition. They're big guys are versatile. They like to step out and shoot."

Also Notable

* This is the 91st season of Big Ten membership in men's basketball for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 50-40 (.556) in conference openers, 61-29 (.678) in league home openers and 34-56 (.378) in the first road game of the season in Big Ten play.

* Senior Velimir Radinovic leads the Big Ten in field goal shooting percentage, knocking down 66.7 percent of his shots (42-63). He made 4 of 8 shots against Texas Tech. He has made 55 percent of his shots for his career (198-360) in 94 games. Against Illinois, Radinovic will battle two others among the Top 5 in field goal percentage. Forward Roger Powell is third among Big Ten players (.639) and center James Augustine is No. 4 (.633).

* Junior Tony Stockman leads Ohio State with an average of 14.1 points a game. He has connected on 88 percent of his foul shots (22-25). With a total of 25 steals, Stockman is among Big Ten leaders (4th) with an average of 1.92 thefts a game. Sophomore J.J. Sullinger averages 11.0 points a game, second on the team. He also is connecting on 50 percent of his field goal attempts (54-108).

* Sophomore center/forward Terence Dials, who missed the majority of 2002-03 with a back injury, is the team's leading rebounder and fourth leading scorer. He is averaging 8.2 points and 7.4 rebounds, including a career-high 14-rebound effort in Ohio State's 77-71 win over Central Michigan at the Maui Invitational.

* Sunday marked the first meeting between Texas Tech and Ohio State in men's basketball. With the loss Sunday, Ohio State falls to 19-22 all-time against teams from the Big 12 conference.

* O'Brien has sent different starting lineups to the court in five-consecutive games. For the year, the combination of Terence Dials, Velimir Radinovic, Tony Stockman, Nick Dials and J.J. Sullinger is the seventh different Buckeye starting lineup used this season.

* The Buckeyes face their second foe ranked among the top 25 in the Associated Press Poll this year when Ohio State travels to No. 19 Illinois. The Buckeyes fell to then-No. 13 Georgia Tech in Columbus Dec. 3 (73-53). The Buckeyes are 128-205 all-time vs. ranked opponents.

* O'Brien is embarking on his seventh Big Ten campaign with the Buckeyes. His teams are 55-41 in Big Ten play, including 3-3 in Big Ten openers. In six previous years, O'Brien's teams have won pieces of two Big Ten championships as well as the 2002 Big Ten tournament title.

* Here is a link to the Buckeye Hoops forum, where we have the line and TV clearances posted for this game.

Click here for the line and TV clearances for OSU-Illinois.

* Here is a link to our look at how Big Ten basketball teams fared in nonconference play.

Click here for a look at how Big Ten teams fared in the nonconference.

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