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Hoops Preview: OSU at Illinois

It will be a matchup of close friends and highly-ranked teams when Ohio State travels to Illinois on Saturday (2:21 p.m. ET; Big Ten Network).

A perplexed Thad Matta looks at an official.

The No. 8 Buckeyes (11-2, 1-0 Big Ten) are coming off a 70-44 thumping of visiting Nebraska on Wednesday, while the No. 11 Fighting Illini (13-2, 0-1) were upset in their conference-opener at Purdue, 68-61.

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta and Illinois boss John Groce go way back, and Groce spent four seasons at OSU as Matta’s top assistant (2004-08). Groce left Columbus to become the head coach at Ohio University where he led the Bobcats to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in four years, including a Sweet 16 berth last season.

He parlayed that success into the Illinois gig, which has the potential to be one of the best college basketball jobs in the country. He also inherited a talented roster, led by senior guard Brandon Paul who exploded for 43 points in a 79-74 win over OSU in Champaign last season.

This season, the 6-foot-4 Paul is averaging 18.5 points per game, 5 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game – which are team-highs in every category. He is on the short list for Big Ten Player-of-the-Year, along with the likes of Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Indiana’s Cody Zeller.

Other standouts for the Illini include 6-1 sophomore guard Tracy Abrams (12.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.3 apg), 6-3 senior guard D.J. Richardson (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.9 apg), 6-6 junior wing Joseph Bertrand (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), 6-9 senior forward Tyler Griffey (9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and 6-11 sophomore center Nnanna Egwu (6 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.4 blocks per game).

It seems like ages ago when Richardson was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the coaches in 2009-10.

“They have great players and they’re a veteran team,” Matta said. “They’re also playing with a newfound spirit.”

Matta downplayed the fact he’ll be going against Groce because he’s faced off against former colleagues and friends “so many times in 13 years as a head coach.”

However, don’t be fooled by such talk. When Groce was at OSU, Matta would actually tell reporters that he would turn practice over to Groce.

“John’s running everything,” Matta was fond of saying.

Yes, he usually said it in a joking fashion – a self-deprecating way if you will – but there was some truth embedded in the humor. And then when Groce left for OU, Matta famously said: “I’ll be lost without him.”

As it turns out, Matta puts a staff together as well as he recruits players and has been able to withstand the loss of Groce. The current Buckeye assistant coaching staff of Jeff Boals, Dave Dickerson and Chris Jent (and video coordinator Greg Paulus) is simply one of the best in the country.

But there’s no getting around the fact that Groce knows everything about Matta and vice versa.

“We’re familiar with each other,” Matta joked.

As for the 6-7 Thomas, he’s averaging 19.9 points and 7 rebounds for the Buckeyes – both team highs by a considerable margin. Junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is second on the team in both categories at 11.6 ppg and 5.1 rpg. Smith is a very-impressive rebounder for a 6-4 player and is also shooting 44.6 percent from three-point range, which is best on the team (Thomas is second at 40 percent).

Matta made a change to his starting lineup just before Big Ten play began as he inserted 6-11 sophomore center Amir Williams in place of 6-8 senior Evan Ravenel. Williams is averaging 4.8 points, 4 boards and 1.5 blocks per game, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against a team like Illinois that will undoubtedly try and be physical with him. Williams has improved of late, but still has a ways to go to reach his potential.

Notes On Illinois Series (courtesy of OSU Athletics Communications)

Ohio State has won 11 of the last 14 meetings with the Illini, including four of the last six games in Champaign. Overall, Illinois owns the series lead with 100-65 record and a 59-24 lead in Champaign. As a ranked team, Ohio State is 22-10 in the Illinois series. Illinois is 35-10 when ranked in games vs. Ohio State. When both teams carry an Associated Press Top 25 ranking, the series is tied at five games apiece. The last time both teams were ranked was in the 2011 Big Ten season when No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 23 Illinois 73-68 in Champaign. The last time both teams met while ranked in the AP Top 11 was in 1963 when No. 3 Illinois defeated No. 4 Ohio State in Champaign 90-78. No. 5 Ohio State defeated No. 8 Illinois 97-73 Jan. 4, 1960 in Columbus. No. 7 Illinois downed No. 11 Ohio State 96-89 Feb. 4, 1957 in the only other meeting between the schools while ranked in the Top 11 nationally. Thomas (14.0 ppg.) and Aaron Craft (10.0 ppg.), both juniors, lead the Buckeyes in the Illinois series on the offensive end. Thomas' 3.5 rebounds per game also leads Ohio State vs. the Illini. Thomas is shooting 70 percent from the field in the series (19-27) and has made 6 of 7 from long range (.857). He also has made 12 of 14 foul shots (.857).

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