BY CHAD DARE
COLUMBUS, OHIO —
Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce called the state of Ohio home for eight years before coming to Champaign-Urbana.
Today, for the first time as the coach of the Fighting Illini, he will take his team into his old stomping grounds as Illinois will be the 14th-rated Ohio State Buckeyes in a 11:30 a.m. game today at the Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
And Groce will see an old friend standing on the Ohio State sidelines as his former boss, Hoopeston native Thad Matta, will try to lead the Buckeyes to a fifth-consecutive win.
“I spent a lot of time in the state,” Groce said. “My son, Conner, was born there and it was a great part of our lives. We still have a lot of friends there, but as I said before the first game with Ohio State, once the ball tips, it’s a game.”
And, it’s a very important game for both teams as the seedings for next week’s Big Ten Tournament will be decided after today’s action in the conference.
Illinois (21-10 overall, 8-9 in the Big Ten) is guaranteed of playing in a first-round game on Thursday in Chicago, while Ohio State (22-7, 12-5) is looking at a first-round bye coming off an impressive 67-58 win at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday.
“They are a little bit of a roll, lately,” Groce said. “Their defense has been tremendous, and as you look at the numbers, they have been real consistent throughout the year.”
The same cannot be said for the Fighting Illini, who have been up-and-down during the Big Ten Conference season, and they come into today’s contest after a frustrating 63-55 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday. Illinois has lost two of its last three after winning five straight league games.
“I just don’t think we were as tough as we needed to be and I didn’t think we executed as well as we needed to – especially in the details of what we do on both ends of the floor,” Groce said. “It’s mental. It comes from the mind.
“You have to be mentally ready to go. And if you are mentally locked in, those things that come in toughness areas – you do them well, you do them at a high level because the mental part is there.”
According to Groce, that’s one of the things that Ohio State is doing recently on its winning streak and he credits Matta for the Buckeyes toughness.
“That’s what coaches do and he is really good at it,” said Groce, who was an assistant under Matta for eight seasons. “I had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. He has always done a good job of pushing the right buttons.
“They have always done a good job of playing well late and they are doing that now.”
Both teams have had four days to prepare for today’s regular-season finale in the Big Ten Conference, and Groce has taken the time to get his guys ready for this stretch drive toward a possible NCAA Tournament berth.
“It’s most important that they are mentally and physically fresh,” he said. “I think that is really important this time of the year.”
After today’s game in Columbus, the Illini will have three days to get ready for the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.
Ohio State is led by a trio of juniors. Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith and Aaron Craft have combined to average 40.5 points per game for the Buckeyes. Thomas lead in scoring (19.8) and rebounding (6.2); while Craft is the team leader in assists (4.4). And on Senior Day in Columbus, Evan Ravenel, a 6-8 forward, will be the only player honored before the contest.
Illinois counters with its backcourt of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams. Those three are averaging 40.6 points per game and 7.9 assists per game.
Today’s game will tipoff at 11:30 a.m. The game will be shown on ESPN and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.