Beat writer Marcus Jackson breaks down Thursday night's Big Ten game.
Sneak peek: Illinois at No. 17 Ohio State 6 p.m. Thursday
Illinois (13-6, 2-4 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 12.8
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 17.4
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 10.6
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 8.0
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 6.8
FYI: Egwu, who has gone scoreless in each of the last two games, leads all conference players with 3.2 offensive rebounds per game in Big Ten play.
OFF THE BENCH
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.5
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 4.0
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 3.5
Ohio State (15-4, 2-4 Big Ten)
G Aaron Craft Jr. 6-2 9.2
G Shannon Scott Jr. 6-1 7.7
G Lenzelle Smith Jr. Sr. 6-4 11.9
F LaQuinton Ross Jr. 6-8 13.9
C Amir Williams Jr. 6-11 9.0
FYI: Craft is the third player in Big Ten history to record 1,000 points, 500 assists and 250 steals, and he’s the only Ohio State player to do so.
OFF THE BENCH
G Sam Thompson Jr. 6-7 7.9
F Mark Loving Fr. 6-7 6.7
G Amedeo Della Valle So. 6-5 5.1
Site: Value City Arena (18,809), Columbus, Ohio.
TV: ESPN — Joe Tessitore (play-by-play) and Sean Farnham (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 104-71. Last meeting: Ohio State 68, Illinois 55, March 10, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
FYI: Ohio State owns a 44-41 edge against Illinois in games played in Columbus, but the Illini are 2-10 in games played against the Buckeyes at Value City Arena, which opened in 1998.
For the first time in a month, the Illini had as many as four days of rest between games. That gives players an opportunity to rest their legs and players like Rayvonte Rice, who has been dealing with a groin injury, more time to recuperate from his injury. “From a health perspective, the last couple days is the best I’ve seen him since the original adductor strain when we played Northwestern,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “That part’s good. He looked really good the past couple days.” Since the injury, Rice is averaging 10.3 points per game. “Coaching is good, players are good, people scheme to try to take away things,” Groce said. “Coming up with a counter, finding alternative ways to score, those things become really important.”
With the time off between games, the Illinois coaching staff has devoted more time toward individual player development to shore up some of the issues that have bogged the team down during its four-game losing streak. Extra shots, ball-handling drills, etc., have been at the forefront as well as preparing for the Buckeyes. “I think the guys enjoyed that. We do that every day anyway, but we’ve invested some more time on that the past couple of days in terms of trying to keep practice fresh,” Groce said. “The biggest thing we’ve focused on is ourselves. It’s been good to get back to some old-school, fall type of practices. Hopefully that’s something that will give us a chance to improve.”
After five weeks away from school for winter break, UI students and basketball players returned to the classroom this week as the spring semester began Tuesday. For the basketball team, that means jumping back into a routine that includes more than just basketball, with plenty of academic responsibilities to be managed. “It’s different. We’ve got different times and different classes, but most of us are done before a certain time so it’s not too big of a difference from the last semester,” Tracy Abrams said. “We’re trying to help our freshmen adjust back to it. They had a semester to help them fight through it. We’re just showing them how things are done,” Rice said.
Ohio State 68, Illinois 64
Who figured in the preseason, or even two weeks ago when both teams were 2-0 in Big Ten play, that this game would be for sole possession of eighth place in the conference? Groce didn’t and neither did Thad Matta, whose club has dropped four straight after a 15-0 start and a stay inside the Top 5 in the polls. But both teams enter tonight’s contest struggling, thirsty for a win to get their seasons back on track. “Pride starts to settle in a little bit with both teams in terms of where both of us are at right now,” Groce said. “The one thing about our league, you’ve got to take it one game at a time. What we can control is our attitude, our effort, doing the little things better. The other stuff you can’t control.” That’s been the message to the Illinois players, who have remained even-keeled, despite the recent struggles. “We’re all composed. We understand what we need to do. We’ve just got to go out there and do it,” Abrams said. With Ohio State’s back against the wall at home, expect the Buckeyes to try to make a statement in front of the hometown folks. (N-G record: 15-4)