There’s only so much yelling you can do when you watch a team go through a stretch like the Illinois Fighting Illini have gone through in their past 10 games. At 3-9, sitting in last place in the conference standings, there’s nothing left to do but suck it up and fight with everything that you have left.
Showing fight, and returning to form, is exactly what the #22 Ohio State Buckeyes have done since their own skid which saw them absorb 5 losses in 7 games in the month of January. The rebound to normalcy for the Buckeyes began the exact day the calender flipped over to February when they knocked off then #14 Wisconsin by a single point. They followed that win up by beating then #17 Iowa three days later. In all, OSU has won 3 of the 4 games they’ve played this month, and they will be coming in to the State Farm Center tonight looking for a quick rebound in momentum following a 10 point loss to Michigan in their last outing.
If Illinois wants to have any chance of stopping the Buckeyes from using them as a springboard back to winning, they are going to have to limit LaQuinton Ross. He is the Buckeyes leading scorer (14.6 ppg), and he has been on fire while reeling off 9 consecutive double digit scoring efforts, including an 18 point performance in the Buckeyes 62-55 win in Columbus the last time these two teams hooked up on the hardwood. Holding Ross down is clearly the most important defensive assignment on the night, but that doesn’t mean the Illini can forget about Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
Smith, Jr. found similar success in the last meeting while scoring 16 points. Coming in to that game he had been very cold from distance, but he managed to hit 4 three pointers in that game, and in a way it has helped re-ignite him as a scoring threat for the Buckeyes. He has registered double digits in 4 of the Buckeyes 5 games since the last meeting, and more importantly he has hit 7 of 16 three point attempts in his past 2 games. Keeping tabs on Smith, Jr. on the perimeter is crucial tonight because he’s really feeling it from distance right now.
The good news is that aside from Ross and Smith, Jr. no one else on the Buckeyes has really been doing very much offensively. The rest of the team, including Aaron Craft to a degree, has all been fairly silent in the scoring column. Craft has never been a big time scorer by any means, but he has shown that he can double up when given the chance. However, he’s only hit double digits 1 time in the past 5 Buckeye contests.
Lock them all down from the opening tip, Illini, and this game WILL be there for the taking down the stretch. It’s time to answer the bell and get back to playing the great defense that should have been this teams calling card all along.
Three Things I’d like to see tonight:
1. Win the rebounding battle – In the Buckeyes 2 losses in their last 5 games they also lost the rebounding battle. They gave up 14 offensive rebounds to Michigan, and 10 to Penn State. Illinois really needs to crash the offensive glass and cash in when they get the chance. No more missed tip dunks. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Jon Ekey!!
2. Play with swagger - It’s a small thing, and it’s tough to do when you lose 9 of 10 games, but in the one game they managed to win recently some of that swagger came back, especially on the offensive end. I want to see them play this game like they EXPECT good things to happen. Who knows, maybe they actually might as a result.
3. Kendrick Nunn shut down Lenzelle Smith, Jr. - It seems like Ross is most likely going to get his points, but Smith, Jr. can be stopped if there is a concerted effort to do so. Nunn has shown the ability to get stops. I’d love to see him get the chance to lock down on Smith, Jr. and keep him out of double digits.
When: Saturday, February 15, 2014, 7 PM CST
Where: State Farm Center – Champaign, IL
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Brian Anderson (Play by Play) and Shon Morris (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.