Weekend Watch: Ohio State-Illinois preview
Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week it’s the Big Ten matchup between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 11 Illinois at 2:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Game overview: Ohio State comes into this key road game at 11-2, having lost only at Duke and at home against Kansas. The Buckeyes have been tested and are a quality team whose offensive and defensive efficiency is each rated among the top dozen in the country. Ohio State minimizes turnovers, averaging only 10 per game, and does a good job of limiting opponents to one challenged shot. Defensively, this team has excellent perimeter defenders from both an individual and team standpoint.
Aaron Craft is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and keys the defense with great ball pressure. But Shannon Scott also has been among the best defenders in the country so far. Scott leads Ohio State with 29 steals, while Craft has 22. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson are also excellent defenders who are athletic and physical. The Buckeyes can match up with any backcourt in the country, get down in a stance and guard them. Simply put, Ohio State is the best defensive team in the Big Ten, especially when guarding inside the 3-point line.
Illinois, on the flip side, has outstanding guards who can really score and make great use of the 3-point line. The Illini have five guys who have hit 15 or more 3s, including three players who have hit 24 or more. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams are difficult to contain and can all get their own. Illinois is a good passing team that really moves the ball and makes great use of the dribble. But this is primarily a jump-shooting team that does not get the ball into the post and does not get to the free throw line. Illinois wins from deep and in transition. Illinois has had trouble cleaning up its defensive glass. The Illini's first-shot defense is very good, but they allow too many second shots. Ohio State has, at times, been a good offensive rebounding team.
Player Illinois must stop: The Buckeyes have several players who can score, and Illinois has to be conscious of Lenzelle Smith out of the corner and take away angles in the post. But to beat Ohio State, you have to limit Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 lefty is a natural scorer who Ohio State will screen into the post and use in pick-and-pop situations, and he has a quick release on his shot. Thomas leads Ohio State in scoring and rebounding, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds, while shooting 47 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 80 percent from the line. To limit Thomas, you must force him to be a 2-point shooter and make him work hard as a defender by involving him in ball screens and going at him; also, you must not foul him. He will get his shots, but if he has to take mostly 2s and is not fouled, he has to work harder to produce big numbers.
Player Ohio State must stop: Illinois has multiple threats on the perimeter, but Brandon Paul is the biggest gun. Paul is averaging 18 points but has the ability to go off for 35, as he did at Gonzaga. Last season against Ohio State, he put up 43. Paul is good in transition, is strong with the ball, and has knocked down 39 3-point field goals in 15 games. He leads Illinois in scoring, rebounding, assists, 3s made and free throws made, and he is second in steals. Illinois can beat you with Richardson and Abrams, but it can't beat you without production from Paul.
Player Illinois needs to produce: The trio of Abrams, Richardson and Paul have to provide scoring, but Illinois needs a good and tough performance from Joseph Bertrand. He is an excellent rebounder and defender and a really good player. Bertrand is averaging 9 points per game and is shooting 56 percent from the floor, 45 percent from deep and 80 percent from the line. He can be a key performer on both ends.
Player Ohio State needs to produce: Ohio State does it by committee and has only two double-figure scorers (Thomas and Smith). Aaron Craft is always there on the defensive end and running the team. There is not a better or tougher competitor in the college game. But Craft needs to score for Ohio State to stay among the contending teams in the Big Ten and nationally. Craft is averaging 8 points, 5 assists and barely 1 turnover per game, but is shooting only 36 percent from the field. In Ohio State's two losses to Duke and Kansas, Craft was 5-for-24 from the field, with 4 assists and 7 turnovers.
Key stats: 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding. Illinois is averaging 10 made 3-point field goals and must be limited from behind the arc. Ohio State has to pick up early in transition and find shooters. The Buckeyes are bigger and do a better job of getting and limiting second shots. Sam McLaurin is Illinois' best offensive rebounder and needs to get second opportunities. But the real key for Illinois is to limit Ohio State's second chances. This is not a game in which either team will cough the ball up 20 times. Second chances are going to be the main opportunity for extra possessions. Control the glass and you control the game.
Who wins: Illinois is coming off a loss, and you get the feeling that the Illini will be prepared for a fight and will come out swinging. But Ohio State is so good at defending the perimeter and limiting mistakes, I favor the Buckeyes in this one: Ohio State, 72-69.