.......is everyone still breathing? Are we all still holding onto our butts from the previous three days of agony and anxiety? If so, you can exhale and un-clench your buttocks, at least for a few more hours. After a thrilling, riveting, and at times stressful victory over the top-seeded, Big Ten Champion Wolverines, Ohio State (21-8, 12-8) has advanced to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. They’ll face Illinois in that game today, but more on them later.
Following back-to-back victories over Minnesota and Purdue that started with the Buckeyes taking a huge lead before collapsing, one may have thought that perhaps Chris Holtmann and the gang would spare us the heart palpations and heavy breathing yesterday in the semifinal. Early on it looked like we would avoid collapse, simply because neither team was able to create any type of separation. Neither squad led by more than four points during the first half, and Michigan went into the locker room at halftime with a lead of a singular point. Both teams were missing a key contributor (Isaiah Livers for Michigan, Kyle Young for the Buckeyes) as they battled through a defensive slugfest at Lucas Oil Stadium.
During the second half the Buckeyes began to flex some offensive muscle on the Wolverines, namely E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. Similar to the first meeting between the two teams, Liddell and Washington provided nearly all of Ohio State’s offense, combining for 42 points on 14-of-32 shooting, including going 8-of-14 from beyond the arc. Washington was also Ohio State’s leading rebounder with six boards, while Liddell grabbed five.
The majority of that damage was done in the second stanza of this game, with 32 (19 for Washington, 13 for Liddell) of the 42 points coming after the break. Washington was especially filthy from downtown during the second half, hitting four of his seven three-pointers. The Grand Rapids, MI native is now averaging 19.2 points per game against Michigan over five career contests.
But with Ohio State holding an eight-point lead and just under two minutes to go, the wheels began to fall off yet again. “There’s no way they fall apart on three consecutive days, right?” I asked myself, only to learn moments later that yes, they were in fact crumbling yet again. After Justice Sueing split a pair of free throws to make it 68-60, the Buckeyes stopped scoring altogether. The events that followed went something like this, in order:
- Hunter Dickinson layup (68-62)
- Liddell turnover
- Dickinson layup (68-64)
- Liddell turnover
- Chaundee Brown three-point jumper (68-67)
- CJ Walker turnover (It didn’t appear that he actually stepped on the baseline, but we’re past it now)
That brought the game down to the final possession, where Michigan dribbled the clock down to four seconds before Mike Smith took a contested-mid range jumper over Liddell, rather than getting the ball to his star center who scored 21 points. The shot was long and clanged off the back of the iron as the clock expired. Ballgame.
And with that, Ohio State advanced to their first Big Ten Tournament Championship game since 2013. A few hours later, Illinois defeated Iowa 82-71, providing Ohio State a foe for their title game. A foe that they are very familiar with, at that.
Ohio State faced Illinois (22-6, 16-4) twice this season: once in late January in Champaign and a second time in Columbus last weekend. The teams split the meetings, with both teams winning on the road.
During the first meeting, Ohio State jumped out to a large lead before Illinois surged back in the final minutes, somewhat similar to what’s been happening every day for the past three days. The Buckeyes hung on and beat Illinois 87-81 at their place, giving them one of the top road victories in the country at the time as far as tournament resumes are concerned. This was right before Ohio State went on their hot streak, and while Illinois was still goofing around trying to find their identity.
They reconvened in Columbus last weekend, with Michigan having already been crowned Big Ten Champions and the Illini locked into the two-seed in the BTT. Right after they hog-stomped the Wolverines, many thought Illinois would deliver a similar beating to an Ohio State team that was coming off three consecutive losses. This wasn’t the case, however, as Ohio State hung with Illinois for the entire contest before collapsing and losing in the final 30 seconds, 73-68.
Ayo Dosunmu made his miraculous return from a concussion/facial injury after missing three games, all Illinois wins. He delivered the game-clinching and-one layup with 44 seconds remaining that broke the 68-68 tie and secured the road victory for Illinois. It was Ohio State’s third loss of the season where they led or were tied with their opponent with 60 seconds remaining or less.
Both teams are in the middle of winning streaks, with Ohio State winning their last three (all during this tournament), while Illinois are winners of seven in a row and 13 of their last 14. Illinois isn’t just winning games, either — they’re blowing everyone out. During their six game winning streak, they’ve beaten their opponents by an average of 13.6 points per game, and have three victories of 15 points or more. Ohio State, on the other hand, limped into the postseason on a four-game losing streak before winning their three tournament games by four, nine, and one points, respectively.
Illinois is one of — if not the — most talented team in the country, trotting out a lineup each game with two All-Americans in Dosnumu and Kofi Cockburn, as well as two future All-Americans in Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo on their bench. On top of that, Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and Da’Monte Williams all bring experience to the table on top of their established offensive prowess. The three of them were major contributors before Dosunmu and Cockburn arrived at Illinois, and now have accepted a smaller role in Illinois’ offense due to their embarrassment of weapons.
Ohio State will have their work cut out for them, as the normally undersized Buckeyes will also be without their tallest rotation player, 6-foot-8 Kyle Young. Young suffered his second concussion in three weeks on Friday against Purdue when Trevion Williams’ elbow connected with his head as Williams went up for a layup. Young, visibly agitated and upset with his luck lately, was removed from the game. Chris Holtmann has told the media that Young is day-to-day, but is unlikely to play today.
With Young out, the job of handling Cockburn will fall on the shoulders of Zed Key, Liddell, and even Ibrahima Diallo, who checked in and played one minute for Ohio State yesterday. As has been the strategy in previous games with Illinois, expect Holtmann to double and triple-team Illinois’ seven-foot center, forcing him to pass out of the trap to his open teammates.
Ohio State will have no choice but to roll the dice and trust that Cockburn’s won’t consistently find the open man, or that the open man won’t knock down his shot. In their first meeting, Illinois did not hit those shots, and the Buckeyes won. During the rematch, they did. One thing is for certain though — limiting Cockburn will be priority number one, and it will take a group effort.
If you remove the final four minutes from their last meeting with Illinois (the loss), Ohio State played one of the most complete games they’ve played all season. They grabbed more offensive rebounds than Illinois, took 13 more shots, and only turned the ball over nine times. They were a bit trigger happy from three-point land (9-of-29), but six of those came in the disastrous final few minutes. For the most part, Ohio State’s shot selection was good, they limited Illinois’ second-chance points, and kept Cockburn in check (12 points, 6 rebounds). They will need to check all these boxes again tomorrow if they want to cut down the nets in Indy.
The one area they struggled, however, was defending without fouling. The Buckeyes were called for 24 fouls during their loss last weekend, compared to just 14 for Illinois. This led to 24 Illinois free throws, and Ohio State was fortunate that they missed nine of them. I don’t expect them to miss that many at the charity stripe again, so — even without Young — Ohio State will need to find a way to defend Illinois without sending them to the line. They’re too talented of a team for Ohio State to simply hand them free points.
Illinois is a snowball rolling downhill right now, and with every victory they look better and better. Ohio State, on the other hand, is beginning to regain its footing after a late season slide, but have by no means returned to their mid-season form. Perhaps they peaked too soon and they won’t get there again, or maybe their best basketball lies ahead of them in the NCAA Tournament.
We can certainly hope for the latter, but I think this Illinois avalanche will be too much for Ohio State. Too much Cockburn against an undersized Buckeye lineup. Too much Dosunmu against a defense whose go-to strategy to avoid a big bucket is to foul. And too much energy from a team that’s played for two days in a row rather than three. I simply think Illinois is the more talented and more rested team.
However, Ohio State turned some heads by knocking off the Big Ten Champs yesterday. Michigan had a seven-footer as well, and despite his having a good day, Ohio State prevailed. Playing for three days in a row takes a toll on you, no doubt. But at the same time, winning three games in 72 hours makes you a very dangerous team. The Buckeyes only need to be dangerous for 40 more minutes to clinch their first Big Ten Championship in eight seasons. Do they have it in them? We’ll find out.
3:30 PM ET