Basketball Preview: Ohio State Faces Tough Task to Keep the Ball Rolling on the Road At Illinois

By Griffin Strom on January 24, 2023 at 8:35 am
Ohio State basketball
Eric Marshall/News Journal

A three-day-long sigh of relief has emanated out of the Ohio State men’s basketball program since Saturday.

Illinois (13-6, 4-4 B1G) State Farm Center 7 p.m. ESPN

But that won’t last much longer if the Buckeyes don’t keep their foot on the gas with another impressive effort in their next matchup.

After extinguishing a five-game dumpster fire with a 93-77 win against Iowa over the weekend, Ohio State gets thrown right back into the crosshairs of another one of the Big Ten’s better teams. With a largely retooled roster that lost its four top scorers from a year ago, Brad Underwood leads an Illinois team that won four straight conference contests before stumbling against Indiana last Thursday.

For the Buckeyes, the task won’t be any easier on the road against a team that’s only dropped two games on their home floor this season.

“Obviously really, really hard to play – home or road – but certainly in that environment. And have a really, really passionate fan base that always shows up,” Chris Holtmann said Monday. “I think their wing strength, their wing ability is really impressive and what has carried them. I know like a lot of teams in college basketball, they've had some times where maybe they've struggled with a relatively new group, or a lot of new faces. But a really good team.”

Need to Know

Winning with wings

Holtmann noted Illinois’ talent at the wing positions and for good reason. The team’s two top scorers, Terrence Shannon and Matthew Mayer, possess length, versatility and athleticism as multi-faceted guards. Both players are transfers out of the Big 12, with Shannon hailing from Texas Tech and Mayer coming over from Baylor. Third-leading scorer Dain Dainja is also a Baylor transfer, and that trio combines to average nearly 40 points per game for the Illini. Illinois ranks outside the nation’s top 25 teams in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, but is top five in the Big Ten in scoring average, scoring margin, field-goal percentage and rebounding. Shannon, Mayer and Dainja are three major reasons why.

Another Key injury

As Ohio State sealed a victory against Iowa on Saturday, Zed Key limped off the floor with the help of two trainers. Key had just dunked the ball on a breakaway play in the final seconds, but appeared to injure his knee in the process. In his postgame press conference, Holtmann said he didn’t expect the issue to be a long-term injury. But given the quick turnaround for Tuesday’s game, Key’s status is still up in the air. Ohio State lost both games it played without Key in the starting lineup this year.

“Continues to be a day-to-day situation that we’re monitoring,” Holtmann said. “… We’ll know more here in a little bit. We should know more by game time.”

(Update: An Ohio State spokesperson said Key will be available for Tuesday’s game and was full-go during the team’s pregame shootaround.)

Recent success in Champaign

Holtmann lists the State Farm Center among the most hostile environments in the conference. But that hasn’t stopped the Buckeyes from enjoying success on the road in Champaign in recent years. In a high-intensity ranked matchup in late February last season, the Buckeyes pulled out an 86-83 win on Illinois’ home floor. In January 2021, Ohio State defeated another highly-ranked Illini team, beating Kofi Cockburn and company, 87-81, in Champaign. Ohio State’s won its last two at the State Farm Center, and it even topped Illinois at the United Center in Chicago in December 2018. Ohio State will try to add to that win streak on Tuesday.

Three Important Buckeyes

Isaac Likekele

The Oklahoma State transfer exploded for a career-best performance against Iowa, doubling his previous season-high scoring total with 18 points in the win. Likekele also pulled down 10 boards, dished seven assists and only turned the ball over one time. Not to mention, Likekele was guarding projected first-round draft pick Kris Murray on the other end, too. That type of effort isn’t likely to be sustained, but perhaps it’s a sign of bigger games to come for the veteran guard.

Justice Sueing

Benched for the first time all season against Iowa, Sueing had his most efficient shooting performance since Jan. 8. He only finished with 10 points, but given his 26.7% clip from the field in the previous three contests, a 4-for-9 afternoon was an improved one for the sixth-year forward. The Buckeyes may have been sending Sueing a message by bringing him off the bench against the Hawkeyes, and whether or not he’ll continue to start games on the sideline will be a storyline to watch.

Brice Sensabaugh

Sensabaugh’s stellar freshman season just keeps getting better. The 6-foot-6 forward scored a career-high 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting against Iowa, and he’s led the Buckeyes in scoring in each of the past 10 games. Sensabaugh’s averaging 20.6 points and knocking down 52.3% of his field goals during that stretch, and he’s had double-digit rebounds in three of the last four games as well. Needless to say, Illinois’ first defensive priority will be to key in on the first-year Buckeye on Tuesday.

Three Important Illini

Terrence Shannon

Player Position Height Weight  Season Stats
SENCIRE HARRIS G 6-4 160 4.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG
TERRENCE SHANNON G 6-6 225 18.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG
MATTHEW MAYER G 6-9 225 10.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG
DAIN DAINJA F 6-9 270 10.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG

A first-year member of the Illini roster after three seasons at Texas Tech, Shannon’s enjoying a career year with a team-leading average of 18.1 points per game. That’s nearly eight more points than he put up per game in his final year with the Red Raiders. The 6-foot-6 guard has taken his game up another notch in the past five games, in which Shannon averaged 20.6 points on 45.1% shooting. Shannon’s most recent performance was his third-best of the season in terms of scoring, as he finished with 26 on 8-for-18 shooting.

"I think he’s the most athletic player in our league, and he's certainly one of the most talented," Holtmann said.

Matthew Mayer

A 6-foot-9, 225-pound guard/forward, Mayer brings a national championship pedigree to Champaign after four years at Baylor. In 22.9 minutes per game, Mayer’s averaging 10.5 points as Illinois’ second-leading scorer, and he’s also knocking down 37% of his 3-point attempts. Mayer was held scoreless for the first time all season against Indiana, but averaged 15 points per game with five straight double-digit scoring performances in the five games prior.

Dain Dainja

Another Baylor transfer, Dainja earned a spot in the Illini starting five at the end of 2022 and the team’s only lost two games since. The 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward will be a wide load for Ohio State to handle down low on Wednesday. Dainja is Illinois’ third-leading scorer (10.3 points) and second-leading rebounder (5.9). Dainja isn’t always a top scoring option for Illinois, but his 70.3% field-goal rate proves he doesn’t miss often.

How it Plays Out

Line: Illinois -3.5, O/U: 145.5

Key’s potentially limited role (if not absence) looms large as Illinois starts three players that stand 6-foot-9 or above. If Ohio State’s offense is clicking on all cylinders, it may be able to clear that hurdle. But the Buckeyes can’t expect season-best scoring nights from multiple starters for a second straight game.

Prediction: Illinois 77, Ohio State 74

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