Boasting back-to-back conference wins, No. 21 Ohio State (10-3, 4-3) will now hit the road to take on the No. 14 Illinois Fighting Illini (9-4, 5-2). Saturday’s game against the Illini represents perhaps their biggest challenge thus far, as Illinois entered the season No. 8 in the AP Poll. They have since lost four games and slipped to No. 14, but make no mistake, Illinois is a national championship-caliber team. They are the type of team Ohio State must conquer if they want to make the leap from a good program to a great program.
During their 81-71 victory over Northwestern, Ohio State took control early and never looked back, leading by nine at halftime and never surrendering the lead after that. Northwestern was able to cut the deficit to just one point late in the second half, but Ohio State answered with a Justin Ahrens three-pointer and finished the game on a 14-5 run to close it out.
Illinois, on the other hand, is coming off a head-scratching 66-63 loss to Maryland on Sunday. Illinois turned the ball over just nine times, which is an improvement over their 13.5 turnovers that they averaged coming into the game. The Illini were better than the ‘Terps in nearly every counting stat imaginable, but were doomed by a less than efficient night from their star point guard, Ayo Dosunmu. Dosunmu, who enters today’s game averaging 22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game, scored 23 points on 9-of-23 shooting. The other nine guys who played for Illinois combined for 38 shots. Not great!
As a unit the Buckeyes are undersized, with 6-foot-8 Kyle Young playing the five for Chris Holtmann. However, Ohio State has several guys falling in that 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 range, which gives them the flexibility to switch constantly, throwing different bodies at opposing bigs until they find something that works (or they find nothing that works and the opposing center eats them alive — that happens sometimes too).
Ohio State has struggled mightily to defend opposing big men this season, getting beat up and taken advantage of by the likes of Dylan Laszewski (17 points, 9 rebounds), Trevion Williams (16 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), and Liam Robbins (27 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists). It won’t get any easier Sunday when the Buckeyes stare down future first-round pick Kofi Cockburn, who is averaging 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Cockburn — who along with Dosunmu passed up the 2020 NBA Draft to return to Illinois — was included in nearly every mock leading into the NBA Draft. Standing at exactly 7-feet tall and 285 pounds, the Jamaican-born sophomore is the exact type of player Ohio State has struggled to defend all year — except bigger and better. Cockburn is averaging three offensive rebounds per game and is shooting 69.2% from the floor, so Ohio State cannot afford to give the Illini big man second chances.
What makes this Illinois team even tougher to defend are all of the options Cockburn can defer to if he faces a double team. In addition to Dosunmu (22.4 PTS), Trent Frazier (8.4 PTS), Andre Curbelo (9.3 PTS), and Adam Miller (9.3 PTS) are all dependable scoring options whose point totals are a reflection of their lack of scoring opportunities, not their talent. Illinois averages 83.3 points per game this season, second behind only Iowa in the Big Ten conference. They also average 13.5 turnovers per game, which is second in the conference as well.
To go on the road and author one of the season’s biggest upsets, the Buckeyes will need to follow Maryland’s script from last weekend. They will need to double team — and sometimes even triple team — Cockburn in the post, forcing him to defer to a teammate. Cockburn is subpar moving the basketball, and had a key turnover in the closing minutes during their loss to Maryland, when the Terrapins brought three defenders to him in the post. A panicked Coburn passed the ball wide of an open Dosunmu and directly into the Maryland bench for a turnover. The Buckeyes cannot be afraid to commit multiple defenders to Cockburn. If he is able to pass to the perimeter and Illinois converts, Ohio State will have to live with it.
The Buckeyes will need to mix in some full-court and three-quarter court pressure when Illinois is bringing the ball up, which is not something Chris Holtmann’s teams have done much of since he arrived in Columbus. While Ohio State’s defense is most effective when they’re able to get set, Illinois’ offense is far less efficient when they’re forced to pass several times just to get the ball past half court in the allotted 10 seconds.
Dosunmu’s 2:1 assist to turnover ratio is less than stellar, and as a unit Illinois turns the ball over more than everyone in the conference other than Michigan State. The Buckeyes have to create opportunities for themselves off turnovers to have a chance, and this will be made more difficult if both CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos are out.
Jimmy Sotos will be a game-to-game decision with his shoulder injury. Holtmann: "We don't know how long he's going to be out at this point."— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) January 14, 2021
Finally, Ohio State needs to dominate the offensive glass, which is something they have been stellar at thus far, despite their size disadvantage. Their 11.5 offensive rebounds per contest ranks fourth in the B1G, just ahead of Illinois’ 10.8 per game. Yes, even with no center, Ohio State is pulling down more offensive rebounds than the team with the 7-footer. Young, Zed Key, and E.J. Liddell have all pulled down 20+ offensive rebounds this season, and they’re going to need to continue that trend Saturday for the Buckeyes to hang with the Illini.
Ohio State is 2-3 on the road this season compared to 8-0 when playing at home or neutral site. Conversely, Illinois is 6-1 at home this season and Ohio State has not won in Champaign since the 2015-2016 season. So the home/road splits certainly aren’t friendly to the Buckeyes.
However, one advantage Ohio State may have is familiarity. The Buckeyes bounced Illinois on the final day of the regular season last year when they beat them 71-63 in Columbus on March 5, 2020. While Ohio State’s roster went through a pretty massive turnover, Illinois’ core stayed the same with Dosunmu, Cockburn, and Frazier all returning. Ohio State grabbed 16 offensive rebounds in that game and forced 14 Illinois turnovers, overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit and winning on senior day. Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes have plenty of film from that game they can review and implement a similar game plan as they did in the second half of last year’s victory.
In the end, I think the combination of Cockburn + Illinois' B1G-best three-point shooting (41.2%) is going to be too much to handle, especially on the road. Ohio State can’t afford to fall behind early like they did against Purdue and Minnesota, or else this one could get out of hand.
ESPN BPI: Illinois 68.1%
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