The Illinois Fighting Illini (8-6, 0-1) will be back in action on Sunday to face the Ohio State Buckeyes (9-5, 1-0) in Columbus. Illinois leads the all-time series between the two programs 104-74, but John Groce is only 1-4 against the Buckeyes since taking the job in 2012; that lone win came three years ago.
Whilst creating the first edition of my Big Ten basketball power rankings back in May, I noted that Ohio State, though very inexperienced, could have the most talented roster in the conference. I mean, 8/11 of the Buckeyes' players were former four-star prospects or better coming out of high school (would've been 9/12, but freshman guard Austin Grandstaff is transferring). That's pretty good!
The bottom line is that you shouldn't be fooled by the Buckeye's relatively harmless 9-5 record; after all, this is a team that secured a huge neutral-court victory over the Kentucky Wildcats a few weeks ago. Ohio State obviously has some weaknesses to address, but this could end up being a fairly dangerous team once the newcomers -- and there are a lot of them -- get fully acclimated.
Player to Watch: JaQuan Lyle (#13)
Does the name ring a bell? It should because the Illini were involved in Lyle's extremely strange recruitment back in 2013. The six-foot-five guard was originally considered a fringe five-star prospect when he committed to Louisville in June of 2013; he decommitted three months later. Lyle gave another verbal to Oregon in March of 2014, and he even signed a Letter of Intent to play for the Ducks. Unfortunately, Lyle had eligibility problems after transferring high schools and he opted not to play collegiately during the 2014-15 season. That's when he conveniently fell into Ohio State's lap when Thad Matta was looking to find a replacement for D'Angelo Russell. So, as it turns out, programs not named 'Illinois' occasionally get lucky when searching for point guards.
Anyway, Lyle is averaging 8.9 points and a team-high 4.9 assists per game in his first year with the program. Jump shooting isn't exactly the most polished aspect of his game (37.6 FG%, 27.9 3PT%), but he's already reached double figures in seven games, including two 18-point outings against Memphis and Mercer. He had 11 points against Kentucky, for those wondering.
One surprising stat concerning Lyle is that he's used on a team-high 24.4% of possessions while on the court. You'd figure that Ohio State would be looking to get their three leading scorers -- Marc Loving (14.4 PPG), Keita Bates-Diop (13.0 PPG), and Jae'Sean Tate (11.4 PPG) -- more looks, but it doesn't appear they are. This is definitely something to keep an eye on considering Illinois', uh, challenged perimeter defense.
Numbers to Know
The Buckeyes are limiting opponents to an eFG% of 43.5 -- that's 14th in the nation. Looking a bit further at adjusted defensive efficiency, Ohio State is only giving up an average of 94.5 points per 100 possessions (28th). So, yeah, it's pretty hard to score on them.
Considering that only two players on Ohio State are under six-foot-four, I'd say the team's length has been a pretty important factor in their success. Opposing teams are only converting on 39.7% of 2PT attempts (7th) and that's going to cause some serious problems for Illinois if outside shots aren't falling.
Ohio State doesn't take care of the ball, and their turnover rate of 20.3% is one of the worst in the country (277th). Illinois' defensive struggles have been excessively documented, but they've actually been fairly average at generating turnovers.
That means the Illini should have a huge edge in this area as ball security has been their only elite trait this season (TO rate of 14.5% is 10th nationally). Every possession counts during conference play, so this could very well mean the difference if this game is in reach down the stretch.
Ohio State has zero seniors this year. Zero! That's incredible. In fact, 10/11 players on the roster are underclassmen, with the only exception being junior forward Marc Loving. With five freshman in the rotation, it wouldn't be out of the question to see some early mistakes because, let's be honest, Minnesota (6-7, 0-1) doesn't really count as their first Big Ten game.
Since I'll be writing similar posts for the rest of Illinois' conference games, I figure it'd be fun to pit myself against the KenPom death machine by picking the games. I do not plan on making it out alive. Now, I obviously didn't submit my prediction for the Michigan game here on TCR and that's because I was too busy including it in a Q&A with our friends over at Maize n Brew. You'll be thrilled to know that I've started Big Ten season at 1-0 after nearly guessing the exact score.
So without further adieu, here are the #picks for Illinois' contest against Ohio State:
Vainisi's Prediction (1-0): Ohio State 74, Illinois 63
KenPom Prediction (1-0): Ohio State 75, Illinois 66 (19% W)