Illinois (13-6) at (17) Ohio State (15-4)

The Sports NetworkJanuary 23, 2014 

GAME NOTES: A pair of struggling Big Ten Conference foes get together on Thursday night, as the Illinois Fighting Illini come calling on the 17th- ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

Both teams are mired in four-game losing streaks, and they are separated by only two games with regard to their overall records.

Illinois comes in at 13-6 (2-4 in conference), and the team has dropped recent decisions to league rivals Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan State, the last two coming at home. The Illini are just 1-3 in true road games, having lost their last three on enemy hardwood.

Ohio State began the season at 15-0, but the squad has fallen on hard times of late, losing to Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and most shockingly, Nebraska. The 68-62 setback to the Cornhuskers in Lincoln on Monday night, dropped the Buckeyes' record on the road to 2-3. The knock on Thad Matta's team heading into conference play was that it hadn't faced much in the way of top-flight competition, an opinion that apparently has some merit considering the Buckeyes recent troubles.

Illinois owns a 101-66 advantage in the all-time series with Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have won 12 of the 17 meetings between the two since Matta took over to start the 2004-05 campaign.

The two teams will meet again in Champaign on Feb. 15.

Poor shooting and a relaxed defensive approach did the Illini in last Saturday against visiting Michigan State, as the team connected on only 37.7 percent of its field goal attempts, while allowing the Spartans 55.8 percent success on theirs. Tracy Abrams led the way for Illinois with 15 points, while Jon Ekey and Rayvonte Rice chipped in with 12 points apiece. MSU nearly doubled UI in points in the paint (38-20), while easily winning the rebounding battle by a 38-25 margin.

Rice continues to pace the Illini in the scoring column with his 17.4 ppg, and he leads the team in rebounding (5.9 rpg) and steals (23) as well. Abrams (12.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg) and Joseph Bertrand (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) round out the double-digit scorers for Illinois, which generates 69.3 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .416 overall and .311 from 3-point range, while at the same time allowing the opposition to hit 41.3 percent of its total shots, which includes a 34.0 percent showing from beyond the arc, on its way to only 63.7 ppg.

Ohio State too put forth a dismal shooting effort in the recent loss to Nebraska, converting a mere 39.6 percent of its field goal attempts, including only 6-of-21 tries from 3-point land. In contrast, the Cornhuskers made good on 50 percent of their total shots, despite missing the mark on 11 of their 13 long-range launches. Nebraska turned the ball over 17 times, but used a 20-14 edge in points from the foul line, coupled with a 33-27 advantage on the glass to pull off the upset. Aaron Craft paced the Buckeyes with 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists, while LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. both went just 4-of-12 from the floor to tally 11 and 10 points, respectively.

Ross and Smith, Jr. are OSU's only double-digit scorers on the season, the duo combining for 25.8 ppg. The Buckeyes rely much more on contributions from multiple players, as five others net between 6.7 and 9.2 ppg. As a team, Ohio State is putting up 73.3 ppg, doing so on typical shooting efforts of .459 overall and .340 from beyond the arc. Where the team really earns its merit is on defense, as opponents are permitted just 58.5 ppg on the strength of a 39.2 percent shooting performance, which includes a dismal 26.1 percent showing from downtown. Add to that more than 15 turnovers per game, and it's not hard to see why so many foes have fallen by the wayside this season.

Ohio State hasn't performed up to its usual standard in the last couple of weeks, and it's Matta's job to get his guys re-focused on once again becoming one of the elite teams in not only the Big Ten, but the country as well. Easier said than done, especially when you have quality teams looking to take you down. In this particular case however, expect the Buckeyes to get back on track, as the hometown faithful provides the extra motivation they'll need to get past the Illini.

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