If history is in the minds of the Ohio State men's basketball team, Saturday has to be a pretty daunting task.
The Buckeyes take to the road for the third time in the young 2006-07 basketball season for their first Big Ten road test of the season. After losses against North Carolina and Florida in enemy territory, Ohio State now has to conquer Assembly Hall in Champaign-Urbana against Bruce Weber's Illinois club if they're to advance to 2-0 in the Big Ten.
Illinois enters Saturday's 2 PM showdown on ESPN losers of their last two games. After losing a non-conference battle to Xavier on Dec. 29, the Illini suffered a surprising defeat to Michigan in Ann Arbor on Wednesday.
Unlike Ohio State, Illinois has several experienced components to their team this season, despite the loss of point guard Dee Brown and forward James Augustine to graduation. Illinois has been up and down the entire year because of injuries and inconsistent play.
Illinois (12-4) is about as balanced as a team you'll find. The Illini has three players in double-figures - Warren Carter (13.9 ppg), Jamar Smith (13.5 ppg) and also forward Shaun Pruitt (11.3 ppg). More amazingly, Illinois has a total of eight players averaging at least seven points a game this season.
The Buckeyes (12-2), meanwhile, are looking for more consistency out of their veterans. Guard Jamar Butler (7.4 ppg) and small forward Ron Lewis (13.4 ppg) have struggled at times this season. While Butler is still adjusting to his new role off the ball, Lewis has been in a slump ever since the debut of 7-1 center Greg Oden.
In the last seven games, Lewis is averaging just 7.9 points a game. In the last three games, Lewis has scored just 19 points including being shutout against Coppin State - the first time in his career he's failed to score a point.
Ohio State is coming off their Big Ten opener on Tuesday, a 74-67 victory against Indiana. Against the Hoosiers, Oden scored a career-high 21 points. Since returning to the Buckeyes on Dec. 2, Oden is averaging 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and is shooting 68 percent from the field with a brace on his strong hand that continues to limit what he can do offensively.
However, shooting free throws left-handed against Indiana, Oden made 9-of-10 free throws from the charity stripe. With a less restrictive brace this week on his rehabilitated right wrist, Oden is reportedly has more flexibility in a key stretch for the Buckeyes that includes the game against Illinois, a road game Tuesday night against Wisconsin and then a home game next Saturday against Tennessee.
Power forward Carter and center Pruitt will be tasked with the job of stopping Oden. Carter has arguably been Illinois' most consistent player this year. He and Pruitt have combined on 14 rebounds a game and are both shooting over 50 percent from the field.
The most disappointing player so far this season for Illinois has been 6-8 Brian Randle. Since returning from an injury, Randle is averaging 7.8 points a game in 21 minutes over seven games. While Smith (43.8 percent 3-point shooting) and Chester Frazier (8.7 ppg and 36.2 percent 3-point shooting) have both been solid on the perimeter for Illinois, Weber is hoping that Rich McBride comes up big on Saturday in their upset bid against the Buckeyes.
This season, the 6-3 senior guard has averaged 8.4 points a game, but is shooting just 32.9 percent from 3-point range and 31.7 percent overall. Perimeter shooting will be a big key Saturday for both clubs.
Illinois shoots 38.7 percent from outside the arc, but their opponents are shooting just under 36 percent. Meanwhile, Ohio State was just 4-of-14 from 3-point range against Indiana and more notably, Indiana canned 12 3-pointers against the Buckeyes on just 22 attempts.
Early in the season, Ohio State was on-fire from outside, but recently they have seen their team percentage fall from 43 percent to 39.5 percent. Their opponents, on the other hand, were shooting just 29 percent from outside over the first seven games, but have raised the percentage to 32.8 percent.
Freshman Daequan Cook leads Ohio State shooting and scoring. The team's sixth-man is averaging 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and is shooting 51.7 percent from 3-point range (56.8 percent overall). Freshman point guard has been equally impressive for the Buckeyes this season.
Conley, the 6-1 guard from Lawrence North High School who played in Oden's shadow for four years, is averaging an impressive 9.4 points a game, 3.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.7 steals, shooting 52.1 percent from the field and is averaging just 1.8 turnovers a game. Conley should draw Illinois point guard Frazier as the task of stopping him from penetrating, which sets up for a possible enjoyable match-up.
With the Illinois frontline that runs 6-10, 6-9, 6-8 and 6-8 Marcus Arnold or 6-10 freshman Brian Carlwell off the bench, Ohio State needs continued production from 6-9 junior Othello Hunter. The native of Winston-Salem, N.C. via Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla. has been a blessing for Thad Matta and Ohio State.
This season, Hunter is averaging 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game in 19.6 minutes. Against Indiana, Hunter had 14 points and six rebounds.
The Buckeyes are hoping third time is a charm. After a 98-89 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill and 86-50 loss to Florida in Gainesville, Ohio State would love to grab a victory at Illinois. Last season, Ohio State defeated 69-53 in their only meeting of the year - in Columbus.
This meeting is the only scheduled meeting between the two teams this season. Ohio State is looking to advance to 2-0 in the Big Ten heading into Madison.