Playing out of state hasn’t been good for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes look to change that trend now that Big Ten play has started when they face Illinois on Saturday.
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes (12-2, 1-0) will play their first conference road game at Assembly Hall—a place where they haven’t won in almost eight years.
Ohio State lost both its true road games this season, although both defeats came against tough teams—98-89 to then-No. 7 North Carolina on Nov. 29 and 86-60 to then-No. 5 Florida on Dec. 23.
“I’ve seen some good things and some bad things,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think this Illinois game will be a good challenge. Going to North Carolina and Florida have been two challenges we haven’t been able to finish.”
The Buckeyes have dropped 10 of their last 11 at Illinois, including five in a row. Ohio State last won 64-61 at Assembly Hall on Jan. 30, 1999, and the Illini (12-4, 0-1) are 22-2 at home in three seasons under coach Bruce Weber.
Ohio State, a favorite along with Wisconsin—which the Buckeyes visit Tuesday—to win the Big Ten title, has some momentum after opening conference play with a 74-67 win over Indiana on Tuesday.
Freshman center Greg Oden faced his home-state team for the first time and finished with a season-high 21 points and four blocks in career-high 30 minutes, but was held to five rebounds—almost four below his season average. Oden, who’s still recovering from surgery on his right wrist, is averaging 15.4 points in seven games and 19.5 in his last two.
“I was a little nervous,” said Oden, who attended Indianapolis’ Lawrence North High School. “It was a big, physical game, and Coach told us it would be really tough.”
Junior college transfer Othello Hunter came off the bench to score 14 points and grab six rebounds. The 6-foot-9 Hunter is averaging 8.1 points and 6.3 boards, and 15.0 and 7.5 in his last two games.
Oden and Hunter will be in for a challenge against Illinois, one of the top rebounding teams in the Big Ten at 37.1 per game. The Buckeyes were held below their season average of 36.1 rebounds in their two losses, grabbing 27 against North Carolina and 25 against Florida.
“Illinois has a lot of size and weight,” Matta said. “It will be interesting to see how the game goes because they have some bodies they can throw at us.”
The Illini, though, have been outrebounded in each of their last three games, including 37-26 in Wednesday’s 71-61 loss at Michigan to open the Big Ten season.
Senior forward Warren Carter and sophomore guard Jamar Smith have been Illinois’ most consistent performers. Carter is averaging 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Smith is averaging 13.5 despite missing six games with a high ankle sprain. He is averaging 17.7 in his last four games.
The Illini will try to avoid losing three straight games for the first time since 2001-02. Illinois has won its last five games against ranked Big Ten opponents at Assembly Hall.
Ohio State has won the last two meetings between the two teams, including a 69-53 victory on Feb. 12, 2006 in Columbus.