While the dead cold of winter and coming of the New Year attends the dying embers of one college sport, football, we can throw a new log on the fire and stoke the flames of regional rivalries and gambling debauchery thanks to the dawn of college basketball’s conference season.
Saturday afternoon offers us the perfect example, as one of the top college hoops games of the Big Ten season tips off between a pair of Top 15 teams. No. 8 Ohio State will take on No. 14 Illinois at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday in Champagne, and the game will be available to watch on the Big Ten Network.
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This will be one of the most-watched and most-wagered on games of the day, and here is a look at Saturday’s top matchup:
Ohio State at Illinois Betting Story Lines
The Buckeyes come to Champagne riding high off a dominating 70-44 performance over Nebraska on Wednesday in their Big Ten opener. It was a typical Ohio State smothering, with their suffocating defense and efficient offense making easy work of the overmatched Huskers.
Illinois, on the other hand, fell flat on their faces in their league debut with a 68-61 loss at Purduetha same night. That was the second loss in three games for Illinois; with a loss to Missouri on Dec. 22 sandwiched around an uninspiring two-point win over hapless Auburn on Dec. 29.
These teams split their series last year, with Illinois earning a 79-74 home win over the Buckeyes last January. That game featured one of the best performances of any player in the country as Illinois’ Brandon Paul went 11-for-15, with eight three-pointers, while amassing 43 points. The Illini shot 60 percent from the field and outscored the visitors 45-35 in a decisive second half.
However, Ohio State has still dominated this series in recent years. The Buckeyes have won six of the last seven meetings, including wins in Champagne in 2011 and 2010, and exacted revenge last February with an 83-67 laugher in Columbus. The Buckeyes are 5-2 against the spread in those seven games.
Paul is again one of the top guards in the conference. And he teams with D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand to give the Illini one of the best backcourts in the country. First-year coach John Groce has worked wonders with this group after employing a similar guard-heavy attack at Ohio over the past five years.
Groce, a former Ohio State assistant, will be going head-to-head to his former boss and close friend Thad Matta, the Buckeye coach.
The problem for the home team is that, with all due respect, Illinois plays like idiots at times. What these guards have in talent they give up in situational awareness or court savvy. It is tough to quantify, but this crop of Illini players has consistently made the wrong play at the wrong time far too often in their collective careers. That is part of the reason they missed the NCAA Tournament last year after a promising 15-3 start and part of the reason that this team has been one of the worst bets in the Big Ten over the last three years.
Ohio State is the exact opposite. They have the toughness and savvy of a team that has played in and won numerous big games over the past several seasons. The Buckeyes have three starters back from last year’s Final Four team, including gritty point guard Aaron Craft and explosive scorer DeShaun Thomas, and they are one of the most well-coached teams in the nation.
The Buckeyes are young – they are No. 210 in the country in terms of “class” experience – but they are accomplished. They don’t have a senior starter, but their junior core of Thomas, Craft and Smith have gone 76-13 straight up in their time on campus.
Ohio State is an excellent team. However, despite their lofty ranking, they haven’t proven themselves yet this year. The Buckeyes don’t have a win over any team in the Top 100, and they lost their two marquee nonconference tilts, losing at Duke and falling at home to Kansas.
Illinois, on the other hand, may be shaky but still has a true road win over No. 10 Gonzaga and a neutral site win over No. 20 Butler.
Ohio State at Illinois College Basketball Betting Odds
The spread on this game opened at Ohio State -3.5. No total was available at time of publication but I can project that the line will be around 141.5.
Ohio State at Illinois Picks and Betting Predictions
I think there is value on the home underdog here if the spread is bet up to Illinois +5.0. But I won’t pull the trigger on a wager here because I simply don’t trust the Illinois players to do the little things necessary to win this game. This Illini team should be the play, but one of these teams has proven an ability to win these types of games while the other has proven that they are skilled at giving them away. I would also keep an eye on the total, and my prediction would be for this game to go “under” if we get a total around 143.5 or higher. I think Ohio State will do a better job of defending Paul this time around, and I think the Buckeyes will struggle to score as easily in a hostile road environment. Five straight meetings have gone “over,” and I think the books will over-adjust the total.
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