Hill will be key against Ohio State

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill draws a foul after a pump-fake against Hampton at State Farm Center on Dec. 17. Hill will be key if Illinois wants to beat Ohio State’s 2-3 zone on Saturday. 

At press conferences, Rayvonte Rice often likes to reinforce one of his head coach’s many mantras.

“We take it one game at a time,” the senior Illini guard usually says, which is often accompanied by a nod from Illinois coach John Groce.

After a disappointing loss to Michigan on Tuesday, that’s exactly what Rice and his teammates have to do. Take this Big Ten season one game at a time, because each game is crucial, especially considering the current state of Illinois’ less-than-impressive NCAA tournament resume. 

Illinois (10-4, 0-1 Big Ten) visits No. 20 Ohio State (11-3, 0-1) on Saturday to face a Buckeyes team that is coming off a letdown loss of its own. Unranked Iowa dropped the Buckeyes 71-65 on Tuesday, leaving both Illinois and Ohio State hungry for their first conference win entering Saturday’s game.

Iowa essentially provided a blueprint of how to beat Ohio State, exposing Thad Matta’s 2-3 zone defense with crisp ball movement and timely outside shooting. The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 17-5 lead and led for the rest of the game.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    For Illinois to pull off its first victory at Value City Arena in Columbus since 2009, it will have to exploit the holes in Ohio State’s zone, like Iowa did. The Hawkeyes’ Aaron White scored 18 points, a handful of which came on easy dunks. Iowa’s success resulted from attacking soft spots in Ohio State’s 2-3 zone defense.

    On Saturday, Illinois should look for Malcolm Hill to play White’s role as the Illini attempt to dismantle the Buckeye defense. Hill has proven to be Illinois’ best weapon against a zone defense this season, showing a knack for catching the ball in the middle of zones and hitting mid-range jumpers. 

    In order to beat a 2-3 zone like Ohio State plays, you have to enter the ball into the middle of the defense near the free throw line. That player can shoot, and if the defense collapses around him, he can either kick the ball out to the perimeter or pass to the short corner for an open look.

    Hill fits the mold of a player who is capable of almost single-handedly exploiting a zone defense — he can shoot as well as pass over defenders. He will be the X-factor for Illinois on Saturday. 

    Under the Bruce Weber regime, Illinois had a tough time implementing and executing this zone-busting strategy, which was frustrating for fans. Groce’s Illini teams have displayed more of a willingness and ability to break zones, but have seemed stumped by them at times as well (most recently against Michigan’s 1-3-1).

    There’s no question Groce and his staff have been studying Ohio State’s game tape this year, especially footage of Tuesday’s Iowa game. Groce is also familiar with Matta, having served as Matta’s assistant at three schools from 2000-08. With so much familiarity between the two, Groce and Matta will be prepared, so the game will come down to in-game adjustments and (obviously) the players on the floor.

    Aaron Craft is finally gone for the Buckeyes, and freshman D’Angelo Russell is making a strong case to become the next face of the Ohio State program. Russell is averaging 17.4 points per game, with Marc Loving and Sam Thompson are averaging double figures as well. 

    The Buckeyes are long and athletic, and have ran up the score on weaker opponents all season. However, they haven’t been able to notch a good win over a high-major team. 

    If Hill can exploit the zone and get help from his teammates, the Illini will have a good chance to make the Buckeyes wait a little longer for their first quality win. 

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.