Illinois basketball’s best chance to avoid 0-4 Big Ten start is Sunday at Ohio State


Malcolm Hill puts up a shot that Michigan’s Mark Donnal (34) is coming in to block during Illinois’ 78-68 loss to the Wolverines at State Farm Center on Wednesday.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

When the 2015-16 Illinois basketball schedule was released, the first four teams on the conference slate jumped out.

The Illini would face, in order, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State.

These four teams were either projected as a top-25 team in the preseason, were prone to giving the Illini fits during head coach John Groce’s tenure, or a combination of both. The rest of Illinois’ conference schedule is as soft as it’s been in years, but those first four looked daunting even before the Illini roster was decimated by injuries.

After a 10-point home loss to Michigan Wednesday, Illinois (8-6, 0-1) now has to hit the road for two straight games for the first time this season. The Illini will play at Ohio State (9-5, 1-0) Sunday evening. Then they’ll travel to face a top-10 Michigan State on the road Thursday before closing out the four-game gauntlet against top-15 Purdue at State Farm Center Jan. 10.

Michigan State will pose an incredible challenge on the road, and Purdue figures to dominate Illinois in the post and on the boards. A talented but inconsistent Ohio State squad probably provides the Illini’s easiest path to avoiding a 0-4 start in Big Ten play.

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Illinois has never gotten off to great conference starts under the current regime. In Groce’s first three seasons as Illinois head coach, his teams have started conference play 1-3, 2-2 and 1-3. Those teams went on to finish with Big Ten records of 8-10, 7-11 and 9-9, respectively. Although this year’s schedule is frontloaded with tough games, stumbling out of the gates at 0-4 could turn an already underwhelming season into an ugly one.

Groce hasn’t had much success at Illinois against Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, whom he worked under as an assistant at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State from 2000-08. Groce won the first matchup between the teams in 2013 but has gone 0-4 since.

“They’ve got great size, they’re athletic, they block shots,” Groce said of Matta’s current Ohio State team. “They’re great on the defensive backboard. They’ve got good length on the perimeter. You know, you don’t see very often a team that starts a 6-foot-7 two guard and a 6-foot-7 three man.”

The Buckeyes are indeed long — only two guys on the entire team are listed under 6-foot-4 — but they’re also young. Marc Loving is their leading scorer (14.4 points per game) and most experienced player, and he’s only a junior. Matta doesn’t have a single senior on his roster.

Ohio State’s rocky start to the season— in which it lost four games in a row, including three at Value City Arena — can easily be pinned on its youth. But the Buckeye underclassmen are wildly talented, and they’re starting to put it together. Former Illini recruiting targets JaQuan Lyle (redshirt freshman) and Keita Bates-Diop (sophomore) are major contributors, and leading rebounder Jae’Sean Tate is an impact player as a sophomore for the second consecutive season.

If Matta can keep this core together for another season or two, Ohio State will be Big Ten contenders again soon. They might be too erratic to sustain success this year, but the Buckeyes will be dangerous night in and night out.

The Illini will likely have to battle the Buckeyes without point guard Khalid Lewis, who is expected to miss his second straight game as he recovers from a case of the mumps. Forwards Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. are still sidelined with meniscus injuries. That means Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will have to carry the load as usual and hope from steady play from point guard Jaylon Tate and first-year scorers Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands.

Illinois hasn’t won in Columbus since 2009, and I feel like I’ve seen Illini players walk off the Value City Arena floor in defeat too many times in those road navy jerseys. They should throw on the alternate grey jerseys for Sunday’s game, if only as a nudge and wink to Illinois fans who complain the alternates look too similar to Ohio State’s uniforms. It might confuse some Buckeye fans as an added bonus.

Whether they wear grey, blue, orange, or forget their jerseys in Champaign and have to borrow Ohio State’s red, the Illini badly need a win. A loss Sunday just makes a 0-4 start to Big Ten play closer to becoming a grim reality.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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