Basketball Preview: Ohio State's Extended Offseason End With Season Opener Against Illinois State

By Colin Hass-Hill on November 25, 2020 at 8:35 am
E.J. Liddell

In a normal year, Ohio State would have already started the basketball season.

Heck, even in this abbreviated 27-game slate, the Buckeyes originally planned to open the season this week in South Dakota in the Crossroads Classic. That was the plan up until a few weeks ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown college basketball out of wack, as it has done to so much else in the world, leading to Ohio State to schedule Illinois State for its long-awaited season-opener that'll tip off at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.

Who Where When TV
Illinois State Schottenstein Center 2 p.m. ESPN

For the Buckeyes, it'll be the first opportunity to show off a new-look roster that lost Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, DJ Carton and Alonzo Gaffney but added Jimmy Sotos, Eugene Brown, Zed Key and Seth Towns. They'll be looking for a lot out of their veteran guards – CJ Walker and Duane Washington Jr. – as Justice Sueing, Kyle Young, E.J. Liddell and others settle in around them.

Even though nobody has seen this group play together yet, they'll enter the day as double-digit favorites on Illinois State, which went 10-21 overall and 5-13 in the Missouri Valley Conference last season. 

"They have a lot of returning shooting on their roster, as well as some depth on the interior that they've added from either transfers or junior college," Holtmann said on Monday. "They have some returning starters. Certainly we expect it to be a great challenge and we expect it to be a really highly competitive game. Anytime you're playing a team from the Missouri Valley, I think that's what you have to expect. They're a well-coached, really hard-playing team that's got some talented players."

Three Important Buckeyes

Justice Sueing

The Cal transfer's long-awaited debut has finally arrived. A 6-foot-7 slasher who will both play on and off the ball, Sueing will get his first chance to show why Holtmann targeted him in the portal a year and a half ago. He averaged 14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 33.2 minutes per game across two seasons with the Golden Bears, and rave reviews have followed him – especially offensively – to Columbus. 

E.J. Liddell

We saw the leap Liddell took near the end of last season. How much better is he since then? The 6-foot-7, 240-pound projected starting power forward will offer everybody a glimpse on Wednesday. The sophomore from Illinois is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds. Liddell recorded a double-double against Illinois in March, so what will he do versus Illinois State this week?

Kyle Young

The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder will shift from power forward to center, where he'll be undersized a lot of the time. Nevertheless, Young isn't one to back down from a challenge, so he says he's looking forward to it. We'll see him as the big man on Wednesday.

Three Important Redbirds

DJ Horne

Illinois State's leading scorer among its returners is Horne, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound guard who was third on the team with 8.7 points per game last year. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from behind the 3-point arc. The Redbirds are looking for the sophomore from North Carolina to take a leap.

Antonio Reeves

Reeves came off the bench as a freshman, but the 6-foot-5, 185-pounder will be expected to step into the starting five as a second-year guard.  He averaged 7.2 points a year ago but did so while hitting just 38.4 percent of his shots from the field and 31.4 percent from behind the arc. Like Horne, he also had more turnovers (30) than assists (22).

Abdou Ndiaye

While much of Illinois State's frontcourt help comes from UMass transfer Sy Chatman and junior college transfers Alex Kotov and Dusan Mahorcic, Ndiaye factors heavily into the plans. The 6-foot-9, 195-pound redshirt sophomore forward from Senegal averaged 1.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 12 minutes per game. His wingspan helped him block 31 shots.

Three Things To Watch

The Big Man Picture

Replacing Kaleb Wesson has no easy answer. Young likely starts at the five. Outside of that, there's plenty of mystery. Freshman Zed Key and sophomore Ibrahima Diallo will be in the mix, with Liddell potentially getting some run, too.

"What I will say is I think both Zed and Ibrahima will play minutes at that position, and both guys need to be ready to go," Holtmann said. "Obviously Kyle, E.J., those four guys will play minutes at that position. But I think some of it's going to depend on the game, matchups."

This'll be a good chance to see some of the backup bigs get some work.

Defense, Defense, Defense

Several times in the lead-up to the preseason, Holtmann brought up defense as being his No. 1 concern. So this week, I asked him if he's just been saying that because he's a coach who hasn't seen his team play or if he's legitimately worried. Here's what he had to say:

"It's real. Yeah, it's real," Holtmann said. "We diagnosed that early on as something that we are going to be challenged with this year. I think people forget how much growth Kaleb took in that third year and how tremendous he was in covering up spots around and protecting the rim, different than what you would think of a rim protector but terrific in walling up, being in the right spots, talking the game. And his brother (Andre) was terrific with it as well. So I think the loss of those two guys presents a significant challenge for us."

The Redbirds aren't going to possess a high-flying offense, but they'll make the Buckeyes work on that end.

The Atmosphere

The Schottenstein Center already has a not-so-great reputation as an arena that doesn't have much of a buzz for these types of non-conference games. What'll it be like when it's nearly completely empty? That'll be a fascinating experience.

Other Notes

  • Musa Jallow (ankle) is a game-time decision, per Holtmann. Seth Towns (knee) will be out as his long-term rehabilitation continues.
  • This is the first of seven non-conference games for the Buckeyes who will take on UMass-Lowell at home on Sunday, Morehead State at home on Dec. 2, Alabama A&M at home on Dec. 5, Notre Dame on the road on Dec. 8, Cleveland State at home on Dec. 13 and North Carolina in Cleveland on Dec. 19.
  • This is the first matchup ever between Ohio State and Illinois State.
  • Wednesday's game will take place in the Schottenstein Center, per usual, but Sunday's matchup with UMass-Lowell will be held in the Covelli Center due to hockey being played in Value City Arena.

How It Plays Out

By all accounts, this should be a relatively easy game for the Buckeyes. Illinois State is ranked No. 239 – the second-lowest in the Missouri Valley Conference – per KenPom's preseason ratings, and the team endured massive turnover in the offseason. Ohio State should be too talented to make this close.

Prediction: Ohio State 82, Illinois State 64

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