Well, it's officially basketball season in Columbus.
With Ohio State football's loss to Clemson in Saturday night's Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes' basketball team now steps into the spotlight — sort of — as they open Big Ten play on Sunday evening at Illinois.
It's Ohio State's first game in 10 days; the Buckeyes last played Dec. 22 — a 79-77 victory against UNC Asheville.
|at Illinois (10-4)||State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)||7 p.m.||BTN|
Sunday's matchup with the Illini is the start of a difficult opening to Big Ten play as Ohio State plays three of its first four conference games on the road. The Buckeyes get Purdue at home next, but after that, it's a pair of road games next week against Wisconsin and Minnesota — a pair of teams ranked inside the top-50 of Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical ratings.
Even though Illinois is coming off a loss, it's a much-improved team from a year ago. This will certainly be a stiff test for Ohio State to open Big Ten play.
Let's break it down, shall we?
This is a big season for Illinois coach John Groce, who has missed the NCAA tournament each of the last three years. Failure to qualify again this season and Groce could be looking for a new position at the end of the year.
The Illini have some talent at their disposal, however, and despite a three-game losing streak early in the season, they enter Sunday's matchup against the Buckeyes sporting a 10-4 record. Illinois already played its first Big Ten game of the season, but the Illini flopped big time in an 84-59 loss at Maryland on Tuesday.
Illinois features a guard-heavy attack led by star Malcolm Hill. The All-Big Ten performer averages a team-high 18.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and connects on 42.3 percent of his 3-point tries.
The Illini also feature for additional players who average at least eight points per game: senior guard Tracy Abrams (11.2 ppg.), sophomore forward Leron Black (11.0 ppg.), senior center Maverick Morgan (8.7 ppg.) and sophomore guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (8.1 ppg.).
Illinois ranks as the No. 72 team overall in KenPom. The Illini are 88th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency at 106.8 points per 100 possessions and 72nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency allowing 97.5 points per 100 possessions. As a team, Illinois averages 78.4 points per game while allowing an average of 71.3 points per contest.
Ohio State finished its non-conference slate with a 10-3 mark. Two of the losses on its resume — Virginia and UCLA — are more than respectable and the third — Florida Atlantic — was inexplicable.
The Buckeyes have just one top-100 KenPom win — their five-point win over No. 66 Providence back in mid-November — so they'll certainly need to perform well in Big Ten play to get back to the NCAA tournament. Illinois presents a good opening test.
Ohio State struggled a bit its last time out in that two-point win over UNC Asheville. Sophomore point guard JaQuan Lyle was big down the stretch and the Buckeyes won a game they had to have even though it shouldn't have been as close as it was.
Now down to No. 42 overall in KenPom, Ohio State needs to string a few wins together in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes are 31st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 93.6 points per 100 possessions, but thanks to a recent team-wide shooting slump they've fallen to 78th in the country in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions.
How It Plays Out
Ohio State escaped its trip to Champaign a year ago — barely — with a 68-63 overtime win against an Illinois team which finished the season 15-19. With a much-improved Illini side this year, expect a similarly contested game.
The Buckeyes will surely be well-rested after their 10-day layoff, but we'll have to see if there's any sort of rust that needs to be worked out. Remember, Illinois didn't have such a layoff; the Illini opened Big Ten play Tuesday night.
KenPom gives the Illini a slight edge in this one, giving Illinois a 52 percent chance at a win and predicts a one-point victory. I'm going the opposite, however, and picking Ohio State to win a close one.
Tim's prediction: Ohio State 67, Illinois 65