Illinois must build off first matchup to defeat Ohio State Thursday

By Alex Roux

Hey there, Ohio State. We meet again.

So soon?

Illinois basketball will face its first repeat opponent of the season in the Buckeyes Thursday, who are set to visit State Farm Center just over three weeks after edging the Illini 75-73 at home. Since the two teams last played Jan. 3, both lost three games, including a pair of ugly footnotes on their resumes.

Both teams suffered two embarrassing road blowouts to top-tier Big Ten opponents in January and were brutalized by Indiana during its seven-game conference win streak. Ohio State’s 35-point loss to Maryland on Jan. 16 and Illinois’ 34-point loss to the Hoosiers on Jan. 19 were the worst losses in their head coaches’ respective tenures. But it wasn’t all bad in January.

The Buckeyes (13-8, 5-3 Big Ten) picked up wins over Northwestern, Rutgers and Penn State, while the Illini (10-10, 2-5) knocked off a ranked Purdue team and needed overtime to squeak by Minnesota in their most recent game. Still, both have lost three of their last five games and are looking to find some consistency to carry into the back end of the Big Ten schedule.

As long-shots for the NCAA tournament, Ohio State and Illinois will use Thursday’s rematch as an opportunity to simply establish some stability against a beatable opponent. With Illinois’ home-court advantage factored in — Orange Krush will be back for the first time in six weeks — the game is essentially a toss-up on paper. However, the Illini’s schedule is much more favorable down the stretch, so beating the Buckeyes could lay the foundation for a nice Big Ten run.

I know, the same thing was said after the Illini’s win over Purdue before they immediately blew it against Nebraska. The window was open then for an extended, successful stretch, but instead the Illini went into meltdown mode for two games. That window has since been recalibrated and their margin of error is now narrower, but their upcoming schedule is too soft to not tempt you to be optimistic.

Looking at Illinois’ next six games, only a home date with Iowa seems like an extreme long-shot to win. But as we know, the Illini have proven that you should never feel comfortable penciling them in for a W in advance. Beating the Buckeyes Thursday wouldn’t move the needle much yet regarding the rest of the season’s outlook, but it could do wonders for the confidence of this inconsistent bunch.

To pull off a victory against Thad Matta’s program for the first time since 2013, the Illini need to do a couple things they weren’t able to three weeks ago in Columbus. The free-throw disparity was the most glaring shortcoming in their last meeting, as the Buckeyes shot 39 free throws to the Illini’s 11. Illinois doesn’t get to the line all that often in general, but the gap can’t be nearly that large if they want to win games.

John Groce’s guys will need to keep their hands to themselves Thursday and try to even out the rebounding margin, which was 42-33 against the Buckeyes last game. The Illini getting worked on the boards has been a common theme, but center Mike Thorne Jr. should be able to limit that discrepancy if he’s able to go — Groce said his center was day-to-day in his recovery from a torn meniscus.

Marc Loving dropped 27 on Illinois last time, so containing him and the rest of Ohio State’s versatile and athletic roster will be Groce’s concern heading into Thursday. Hill locked down dynamic forward Jae’Sean Tate, but Buckeye point guard JaQuan Lyle hurt the Illini for 14 points, four rebounds and five assists while his Illini counterpart Khalid Lewis watched from home with the mumps.

Offensively, Illinois stretched the Buckeye defense pretty well on its way to 12 threes in that two-point loss. Look for the Illini to hoist a high number of 3-pointers again and show 2-3 zone on defense to counter Ohio State’s ability to limit two-point looks and convert interior buckets at a reasonably high rate on the other end.

Fans have been riding Groce for a perceived lack of in-game adjustments this season, and this rematch presents his first opportunity of the year to tailor a game-plan to an opponent he’s seen before. As his understudy for eight years, Groce knows Matta’s tendencies better than anyone.

We’ll see if Groce can exploit them this time.

Alex is a senior in AHS.?

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