Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
The Ohio State men’s basketball team played its first game in November, but to the players, the real season has just begun.
“The Big Ten has started,” said junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. “We’re shooting real bullets now.”
The No. 8 Buckeyes (11-2) opened Big Ten play on Jan. 2 with a blowout win against Nebraska, but winning league games will likely become substantially tougher in the coming weeks. OSU is set to face three ranked opponents in its next four games, and three of those four games will be played away from home.
Directly ahead is a matchup on Saturday against No. 11 Illinois (13-2) in Champaign, Ill. The Illini were upset by unranked Purdue in their Big Ten opener Wednesday, which might have displayed some of Illinois’ weaknesses, but also a served as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a team doesn’t play its best on the road against a conference opponent.
“You see Illinois, who’s playing great, go in against Purdue and taking a loss,” said junior point guard Aaron Craft. “Every game in the Big Ten is going to be a tough game.”
If the Buckeyes are to beat the Illini, and win a game against a ranked opponent for the first time this season, it’s likely imperative that they contain senior guard Brandon Paul, who torched OSU for 43 points last season as Illinois secured an upset win at home against the then-No. 5 Buckeyes.
This year, Paul is averaging almost 19 points per game and has tallied double figures in all 15 of the Illini’s games this season.
“We saw first hand, when he’s rolling, how good he can be,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “He’s one of the best guards, not only in the Big Ten, but probably in the country.”
Smith Jr. said that OSU will play with a heightened awareness on defense to ensure Paul doesn’t produce a repeat performance.
“Of course we know what he’s capable of from last year,” Smith Jr. said. “Hopefully we just come out and play a better defensive game and be able to guard him a little better.”
If there was a particular facet of the game in which the Buckeyes struggled last year against Paul, it was finding him while in transition defense. Occasionally OSU lost track of Paul on the fast breaks, allowing the guard to spot up for wide-open jumpers. As a result, he buried eight 3-pointers.
“They like to get out in transition and run a lot,” Smith Jr. said. “He spots up on the wing and if you get there a second late, the shots going up. Sometimes he’s fortunate enough to make a lot of those shots.”
Saturday’s matchup will also be the first meeting between Matta and his long-time assistant John Groce. Groce served under Matta at OSU from 2004-2008, and was also on Matta’s staff while at Xavier and Butler.
Matta. though, said he’s not focused on who he’s coaching against, just the task at hand.
“That’s all irrelevant,” Matta said. “It’s a Big Ten basketball game and you’ve got to get yourself ready to go.”
The Buckeyes are scheduled to tipoff with Illinois at 2:15 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.