Well, the end of the regular season has not exactly gone how the Buckeyes had hoped. The No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team (18-7, 12-7) is on a three-game skid, most recently falling to No. 5 Iowa 73-57 Thursday night in Columbus. But they’ll have to put the memory behind them, because the Buckeyes have one last hoorah in the regular season when they face No. 4 Illinois (19-6, 15-4) on senior day this afternoon in Columbus.
Tonight marks the regular season finale, and the last chance for what had been a hot Ohio State team to get back on track before the start of the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes had been vying for the No. 1 spot in the conference when they took on Michigan a few short games ago, but now find themselves fighting to hold on to fifth place in the standings following losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Hope of a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament has all but faded.
But performance on the court adds another issue, since the Ohio State team we’ve seen for the last couple weeks doesn’t look like the same one that rose all the way to No. 4 in the nation not that long ago, and it feels like the wind has, in many ways, gone out of the Buckeyes’ collective sails.
The Buckeyes will need to hit their stride certainly before it comes time for the NCAA Tournament. But it won’t be easy. The Big Ten Tournament itself is rife with traps, with nine (maybe even 10) potential tournament teams out of 14 in the conference (including two projected No. 1 seeds). There’s almost no matchup that would be an easy win for the Buckeyes, especially in the second round and beyond. However, Ohio State won’t be catching a break with its regular season finale, either.
That’s because the Buckeyes are facing off against yet another hot, top-five Big Ten team in Illinois tonight. And oh how the turntables… The Illini now find themselves in the driver’s seat, vying for a No. 1 seed of their own in the NCAA Tournament - the seed that once appeared to be in the hands of the Buckeyes. But before we get into it, let’s talk about what happened Sunday.
It hasn’t been Sunday Funday for the Buckeyes in a hot minute, with consecutive losses Michigan and Iowa in back-to-back weeks. The 73-57 loss to the Hawkeyes never seemed to be in the Buckeyes’ favor, even on the homecourt in Columbus. And it certainly wasn’t the same story of narrow losses we saw from Ohio State against Michigan and Michigan State, as the loss to Iowa brought Ohio State’s lowest offensive output of the season at the worst possible time
Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell opened up scoring, but his two-point jumper 16 seconds into the first half would prove to be Ohio State’s only lead of the game. Iowa jumped to a 14-point halftime lead, despite more three-point efforts from junior guard Duane Washington Jr. that seemed to bring things closer before the Hawkeyes took off before the break.
If there was a point when it felt like the tide might be turning, it was at the start of the second half when the Buckeyes went on a 14-2 run minutes in the half. But the Buckeyes found themselves in such a hole that even a run like the aforementioned wasn’t enough to climb all the way back. Ohio State was within two early in the second, but couldn’t stop Joe Weiskamp’s threes or Luka Garza down low. By the 10 minute mark in the second half, the Hawkeyes had amassed a sizable lead the Buckeyes couldn’t match.
Liddell finished the game with 15 points. Junior forward Justice Sueing had a dozen, and senior guard C.J. Walker, who started Sunday after coming off the bench for much of conference play, had 10. With Walker in the starting lineup, Ohio State totaled just 10 points off the bench. Washington would finish with just seven points - his first time scoring in single figures since January. Senior forward Kyle Young, who’d missed the Michigan State game due to a concussion suffered against Michigan, had three points in 25 minutes.
In some ways, the two squads appeared evenly matched. Both shot above 45% from the field. Both were relatively even on the boards (Iowa had a 34-31 advantage). But the similarities pretty much end there. Iowa had six offensive rebounds to just two for Ohio State. The Buckeyes were abysmal from range, connecting on just 29% of shots from beyond the arc, while Iowa shot nearly 42%.
Iowa’s always tended to be a team that can effectively share the ball, which was extremely salient last week. The Hawkeyes had 22 assists to the Buckeyes’ eight. And there’s a reason the Hawkeyes boast the nation’s best assist-to-turnover ratio: Iowa had five - yes, five - turnovers Sunday. Yes, in the entire game, Iowa had five turnovers. Ohio State had 13. The reality is it’s hard to beat a team that doesn’t make mistakes.
Again, things won’t get much easier for Ohio State when the Buckeyes face Illinois this afternoon. While Iowa boasts the Big Ten’s top offense, averaging 85.3 points per game, the Illini are No. 2, scoring 81 points per game. For what it’s worth, Ohio State is third with 77.2 points per game.
Illinois, meanwhile, is coming off one of its best wins of the season, having demolished Michigan 76-53 in Ann Arbor. The Illini’s stifling defense held the Wolverines to their lowest point total of the season, with just one player for Michigan scoring in double figures and the team as a whole shooting under 35% from the field. The Illini led by 11 points at the break after a first half in which offensive output was rare, but Brad Underwood’s team found its stride in the second half and rolled to one of its best wins of the season.
Illinois was without junior guard Ayo Dosunmu, the Illini’s leading scorer, who suffered a facial injury in the Illini’s loss against Michigan State, but the Illini still found their stride on offense behind senior guard Trent Frazier’s 22 points. Freshman guard Andre Curbelo stepped up off the bench with 17 of his own.
That Illinois team, even without Dosunmu, still seems to be a hotter team than the one the Buckeyes faced earlier this season. In that Jan. 16 matchup, the Buckeyes emerged with a 77-71 victory on the road in a highly-physical matchup. The Buckeyes ran to a 10-2 run to open the game, and held Illinois to just 28 points at the break.
Despite Ohio State being up by five at the half, the game was tight through the very end, with the Illini connecting on a three-pointer with under 16 seconds remaining in the second half to pull within two.
Liddell led the Buckeyes in scoring with 26 points, while Sueing, Washington, junior forward Justin Ahrens and senior forward Seth Towns each had 11 points on the day. Walker missed the game due to injury.
Dosunmu led the Illini in scoring with 22 points on the day, while sophomore center Kofi Cockburn had 15. Ohio State managed to contain Illinois’ big man in a way the Buckeyes haven’t been able to in recent games.
Ohio State shot nearly 54% from the field to Illinois’ 48%. The Buckeyes also went bonkers from range, connecting on 52% from beyond the arc with four baskets from Liddell and three from Ahrens.
The two teams were evenly matched in many other respects, with Illinois barely out-rebounding Ohio State 29-28 and the teams dead even in steals (six apiece), blocks (one) and fouls (20).
The Illini lead the all-time series against Ohio State 103-75, but the record at home in Columbus is much more balanced (46-42 in favor of Illinois). Illinois will certainly be looking for revenge against the Buckeyes for their January loss, and the Illini are hot right now, riding a three-game winning streak including the aforementioned signature win against Michigan.
Some of the issues that plagued the Buckeyes against Iowa would seem to be less so against Illinois. For instance, Illinois is 13th in the Big Ten in turnovers, giving the ball up an average of 13.5 times per game. Illinois is also straight bad at forcing turnovers. In fact, the Illini are 288th in the NCAA in forced turnovers.
The status of Illinois’ star guard Dosunmu remains a question, but he was seen working out earlier this week and might see the court against Ohio State. Dosunmu is the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten with 21 points per game (behind Garza, whom we would all like to forget about already as Ohio State fans), and the assist leader in the conference, averaging 5.3 per game.
Cockburn is the most efficient big man in the Big Ten. In fact, the center is connecting on 67% of his shots from the field. Yes, even though most of his shots are literally from below the basket, it’s still impressive. He’s also the top rebounder in the Big Ten, pulling down nearly 10 boards per game. Along with his 17.5 points per game, the seven-foot center is close to averaging a double-double on the season. The Buckeyes have struggled to guard the big man, with the deficiency being especially clear against both Michigan and Iowa, but, as mentioned, Ohio State managed to contain Cockburn in the teams’ previous matchup.
While there have certainly been struggles lately, the Buckeyes do benefit from their consistent free throw shooting. Walker (95.7%) and Washington (89.2%) are the two best free throw shooters in the Big Ten.
At this point in the season, it feels like the Illini have a lot more to play for than Ohio State. Michigan has already locked up the top seed in the Big Ten, but another signature win for the Illini - who are already projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament - would solidify Illinois’ status.
That being said, it is senior day, and the last time the duo of Young and Walker will take the court at Value City Arena. And despite the Buckeyes’ struggles against Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa in succession, this losing streak, while coming at a highly inopportune time, should be taken with a grain of salt. These losses came to three of the other hottest teams in the conference and the nation, and the Buckeyes did have some positive takeaways even though the end results of these games wound up in the loss column.
Looking ahead to this evening, Ohio State will have to step up from what we’ve seen in the last couple weeks against a surging Illinois squad. The good news for Chris Holtmann’s team is that Ohio State has already beaten Illinois once this season. The Buckeyes can do it again.
ESPN BPI: Illinois 53.3%
Time: 4 p.m. ET