7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ohio State -6.5, Over/Under: 132
At long last, some clarity should be brought to the chaotic Big Ten as nearly half of the league vies for First Place heading into the last week of the Regular Season as the No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes play host to the No. 23 Illinois Fighting Illini from Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. It’s been a rather dramatic turn of events for Illinois (20-9, 12-6 in Big Ten), who after suffering a four-game losing streak have managed to turn things around and string together four consecutive victories, putting them back into striking distance of the top of the league table. Coming into tonight’s trip to Columbus, the Fighting Illini are one game behind Maryland for First Place alongside Michigan State and Wisconsin, which sets up a crucial week of play for Brad Underwood’s charges (made all the more interesting following Maryland’s loss earlier in the week); following tonight’s jaunt through the state of Ohio, they’ll conclude the Regular Season back in Champaign against the No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes, which is ironically the same team in which that aforementioned losing skid began against. So what has changed for the Illini, you ask? Well, so much of their success this season can be attributed to their stellar play on the defensive end of the court, particularly in conference play where they’ve relinquished the fewest points in the Big ten, allowing just 63.2 Points per Game on 40.6% shooting from the field (3rd in Big Ten), including 45.0% within the arc (4th in Big Ten) and 31.4% beyond it (2nd in Big Ten), while also pacing the league in Three-Pointers (5.9), Free-Throws (10.1), and Assists (10.8) Allowed, along with Rebounds (39.6). However, this is far from the most efficient offensive outfit in the country, and if they relent when not in possession they can in turn fall into the situation they found themselves in losing four straight outings. During that stretch, Illinois permitted their opponents to score 72.3 Points on 48.6% shooting from the field, including 41.5% from downtown, and 15.0 Assists, which runs counter to the figures they’ve posted throughout the campaign, with these contests coming against the likes of the Terrapins, Spartans, and Hawkeyes. However, they’ve managed to rebound since then, regaining their defensive prowess over the last quartet of games, relegating the opposition to a much more palatable 61.8 Points on 40.0% shooting, including 31.4% from long-range, and 11.0 Assists. When we last saw them, the Illini won their fourth straight affair, this one a 67-66 thriller over Indiana. With the tilt tied 36-36 at Halftime, the hosts required a pair of manic runs in the Second Half to pull ahead of the Hoosiers, with Sophomore Point Guard, Ayo Dosunmu (16.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 3.1 AST, 19.4 PER), leading the charge. Dosunmu, Underwood’s first major recruit since arriving in Champaign back in 2017, has been the cauldron for the Illini attack this season, particularly late in games where he has shown a propensity to take matters in his own hands, which was once again the case last Sunday. With his side clinging to a two-point advantage, Dosunmu nailed a clutch Three-Pointer with 1:28 left to play to push the lead to 65-60, and when the visitors struck back with a trey of their own on the following possession, stepped up to the Charity Stripe to knock down the clinching Free-Throws to ultimately put the game away, finishing with Seventeen Points on 6-of-15 shooting (40.0%), Three Rebounds, an Assists and a Steal. As a team, Illinois shot 44.2% overall, including 4-of-12 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and 17-of-24 from the Free-Throw Line (70.8%), while rendering Indiana to 40.7% shooting, including a miserable 16-of-23 from within the arc (37.2%). Freshman Center, Kofi Cockburn (13.6 PTS, 53.1% FG, 9.0REB, 1.4 BLK, 25.8 PER), another jewel from Underwood’s recruiting efforts, was essential to sealing off the Paint, totaling Fifteen Points, Five Rebounds, and Six Blocks, while calmly sinking 7-of-10 Free-Throws (70.0%). Sophomore Guard, Andres Feliz (10.9 PTS, 46.5% FG, 27.5% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 20.4 PER), also finished with Fifteen Points, along with Seven Rebounds, Four Assists, and a very crucial Steal late in the affair that saw the home side build upon their slim advantage. The win earned the program their fourth 20-Win Season in the last eight years, their first winning term since 2016-17, and their first winning record in the Big Ten in just over a decade. With a pair of wins and a bit of luck on their side, the Illini may even secure their first Big Ten Regular Season Title since 2004-05. As a result, the school rewarded Underwood with a three-year Contract Extension through 2026. After going just 26-39 in his first two years in Champaign, the Head Coach clearly appears to have his troops on the right track, with a return to the NCAA Tournament providing further validation.
Meanwhile, they may be mathematically out of the race for the Big Ten Regular Season Championship, but the way that Ohio State (20-9, 10-8 in Big Ten) has been playing of late, there is a very real argument that can be made that they are in fact the top denizen of the league. Like their opponent tonight, the Buckeyes suffered through their own trials and tribulations midway through the campaign, at one point losing six out of seven games, all but one of which occurred within conference play. However, Chris Holtmann’s charges have since responded positively, surging to an 8-2 record over the past five weeks, a period in which they knocked off league leader, Maryland (79-72), not to mention Michigan on two separate occasions. During this stretch they’ve managed to outscore the opposition by 6.6 Points per Game in the style of those classic defensive struggles that the Big Ten has become so synonymous with, shooting just 43.3% from the field, though enjoying success from beyond the arc where they’ve netted 37.1% of their attempts. Then again, that last bit should come as no surprise, for this team has been the most proficient in the league when it comes to bombing away from the perimeter, shooting 36.9% (1st in Big Ten) and totaling 154 Three-Pointers (2nd in Big Ten). With a Rotation that goes nine deep, featuring five of them netting at least 40.0% of their attempts from long range, the Buckeyes can make up a deficit in a hurry thanks to shooting, while creating excellent spacing for Junior Forward, Kaleb Wesson (14.0 PTS, 44.4% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 9.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.0 BLK, 23.2 PER), to operate. The 6-9, 270-lb Wesson is a load to handle in the Paint, leading the team in Points (14.0), Rebounds (9.6), Free-Throws (108), and Blocks (1.0), while also showing the ability to step out and knock down the open trey (43.0%). That marksmanship played no small role in Ohio State’s recent 77-63 victory over Michigan, in which they dominated down the stretch, ending the game on a 23-9 run. Holtmann’s troops shot a blistering 11-of-21 from downtown (52.4%), featuring five different players in double-figures. The aforementioned Wesson scored all but three of his Fourteen Points from beyond the arc, netting 4-of-5 from deep (80.0%), while Sophomore Guard, Duane Washington Jr. (11.4 PTS, 41.0% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 1.5 AST, 16.9 PER), led the way with Twenty Points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%), including 5-of-7 from Three (71.4%). Washington has served as the catalyst for their recent successes, averaging 15.5 Points on 42.9% shooting from the perimeter, along with 4.5 Rebounds, 1.3 Assists, and 1.0 Steals over the last four games. Defensively, the Buckeyes did a solid job of keeping the Wolverines under control from the perimeter, where they could muster just 7-of-26 shooting (26.9%), and keeping them off the Charity Stripe (6-of-8) and off the Offensive Glass (4). In the end, the disparity in Threes was too much for the visitors to overcome, which is something that will make this group dangerous going into not only the Big Ten Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament as well. With the Season Finale set for Sunday at No. 16 Michigan State, Ohio State will conclude a hellacious stretch which featured five ranked opponents in six contests, providing an opportunity to assure more opportunistic seeding in the Big Ten Tournament leading to a potential raise in seeding in the NCAAs that follow. Since Holtmann arrived in Columbus back in 2017, he’s 2-1 against Illinois, though when they last met, coincidentally at Value City Arena, they were repelled in a 56-63 defeat that threw them into a spiral of despair, losing eight of their last ten games of the term, including both Postseason Tournaments.