Big Ten Preview Part II: Key Questions for Illinois & Ohio State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 30th, 2017

With the season just a few weeks away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Illinois and Ohio State.

#12 Illinois Does Brad Underwood have the backcourt to create more of his first year magic?

Point guard Te’Jon Lucas will be key for Illinois this season. (Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY Sports)

As a first-year, first-time head coach in 2013-14, Brad Underwood led Stephen F. Austin to a 32-3 overall record, including a 29-game winning streak and the Lumberjacks’ first NCAA Tournament victory in school history. In his first and only year at Oklahoma State, Underwood pulled his team out of an 0-6 Big 12 hole, proceeded to rip off 10 victories in 11 games, and ultimately took the Cowboys dancing. Now, after receiving an offer too good to refuse, Underwood finds himself at Illinois, where another first-year NCAA Tournament run seems dubious. Gone are three of the Illini’s top four offensive weapons — including Malcolm Hill (17.2 PPG) — which presents a problem for a coach whose teams thrive on sharp ball-movement and shooting. That’s why sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas, Wright State transfer Mark Alstork, and touted freshman Mark Smith probably hold the keys to success. If Lucas, a pure passer, can open up Underwood’s spread offense and find efficient looks for Alstork (19.0 PPG in 2016-17) and Smith (Illinois’ Mr. Basketball), Illinois has a chance to discover the offensive rhythm it generally lacked under previous head coach John Groce. The ability of forwards like Michael Finke (41% 3FG) and Slovenian freshman Matic Vesel to stretch the floor — along with marked improvement from frontcourt anchor Leron Black (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG) — will also be imperative. Realistically, there are probably too many “ifs” in Champaign for Underwood to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat this season, even with a backcourt that already seems to fit his system.

#11 Ohio State  Can all the newcomers generate enough quality production?

Former Butler coach turned Ohio State head man Chris Holtmann has some players to work with. (Getty)

There’s no two ways about it for Ohio State this season: Either its fresh faces contribute early and often, or the Buckeyes will be a one-dimensional mess. That’s the challenge Chris Holtmann faces in his first year on the job, as a combination of graduating seniors and outgoing transfers has left the former Butler coach with just a few proven upperclassmen and a whole bunch of question marks. Luckily, once of those upperclassmen is Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG), an aggressive forward whose ability to attack the rim, rebound and defend give Holtmann someone to lean on. He, along with shooting guard Kam Williams and forward Keita Bates-Diop (11.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG in 2015-16) — who missed most of last season to injury — will have to log big, productive minutes in order for Ohio State to finish above the cellar. As for the Buckeyes’ ceiling, that depends on whether roster additions like freshman forward Kaleb Wesson — Ohio’s Mr. Basketball — former Butler commitment Kyle Young, and Michigan graduate transfer Andrew Dakich can provide quality minutes. In the frontcourt, Wesson and Young must help fill the void left by Trevor Thompson (the Big Ten’s second-best defensive rebounder) and Marc Loving, Ohio State’s second-leading scorer. In the backcourt — where depth is an even larger concern — Dakich will be an important contributor behind point guard C.J. Jackson, an unproven junior who’ll shoulder a big load following JaQuan Lyle’s offseason departure. If the new guys pan out, Ohio State can compete for middle-of-the-pack status in this year’s Big Ten. If not, Buckeye fans should start looking ahead to 2018-19.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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