Illinois got off to a surprising start using some of the best perimeter shooting in the country. Its offense has since fizzled and it’s lost two of three.
The 11th-ranked Fighting Illini will likely need to heat up again to get back on track as they host No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday.
Illinois first-year coach John Groce and Ohio State coach Thad Matta are very familiar with each other, as Groce spent eight years as an assistant under Matta, including four with the Buckeyes.
“First of all, he’s a friend,” Groce said of Matta. “He’s done a lot for me personally and professionally. I wouldn’t be standing here with this wonderful opportunity to be at the University of Illinois without him.”
Groce got the Illini (13-2, 0-1 Big Ten) off to a 12-0 start, and they played particularly well in their eight November games, shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range while averaging 79.3 points. In their last five contests, however, they’re hitting just 28.6 percent of their 3-point attempts and 39.7 percent of their field goals. It was still good enough for Illinois to survive against Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky, but cost it losses to No. 12 Missouri and at Purdue.
The Illini trailed the Boilermakers by 10 with less than three minutes to play on Wednesday and was able to chip the deficit all the way to two before ultimately falling 68-61 in their Big Ten opener. Shooting 35.6 percent didn’t help matters.
“One thing I will give our guys credit for is that we were down 10 and we fought and clawed our way back to get it to that free-throw block out,” Groce said. “But our execution has got to get better.”
Brandon Paul (15 points on 5 of 10 shooting) was one of only two Illini players to shoot better than 33.3 percent, and has scored in double figures in all 15 games.
The Buckeyes (11-2, 1-0) are all too aware of Paul’s capabilities after he went 11 of 15 from the floor, including 8 of 10 from 3-point range, to lead Illinois to a 79-74 home win over then-No. 5 Ohio State last January. Six weeks later in Columbus, he was 2 of 9 for nine points as the Buckeyes won 83-67, beating the Illini for the 11th time in 14 meetings.
Ohio State’s defense is even more stout than it was last year, limiting opponents to 56.5 points and 36.8 percent shooting, which both rank in the top 20 nationally. It’s held each of its last two opponents to 44 points.
Ohio State’s interior defense has been bolstered by 6-foot-11 center Amir Williams, who is averaging 2.3 blocks over his last four games and matched a season high with four in Wednesday’s 70-44 home win over Nebraska.
“It’s great to have a center,” said point guard Aaron Craft, who averages 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals. “(Williams) has been playing great coming in and understanding where he can impact the game: blocking shots, altering shots, offensive rebounds. These little things make a big impact on our team.”
Illinois’ biggest concern, however, will be trying to slow down Big Ten scoring leader Deshaun Thomas (19.9 ppg). The junior forward, who outscored Nebraska 18-17 in the first half, combined for 42 points in two games against the Illini last season, and is shooting 70.4 percent from the floor in four career games against them.