The No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes (18-7, 12-7) ended their unique 2020-21 men’s basketball regular season on Saturday afternoon as they hosted the No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini (19-6, 15-4). In a back-and-forth game, Illinois handed OSU their fourth-straight loss and essentially cemented I-L-L’s spot on one of the four No. 1 lines in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini topped the Buckeyes 73-68 and sent OSU into the Big Ten Tourney in desperate need of a victory before the start of the Big Dance.
On a Senior Night that honored CJ Walker and Kyle Young, the game got started on the ESPN app as No. 23 Purdue’s 67-58 victory over instate-rival Indiana got dragged too far longer than it needed to, securing the Boilers’ double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
While the action was occurring on the app, the Illini scored the first six points of the game, only for OSU to knock down 11 straight. From there, however, Ohio State’s offense struggled to connect as Illinois went on a 9-0 run of their own. During that run, the Illinois defense ratcheted up its intensity, forcing the Buckeyes to not connect from the field for 5:21 before Washington drilled a one-footed three-pointer.
The road team’s offensive prowess did not end with Washington’s make, however. In the first half, Illinois shot a whopping 18-for-29 (62.1%) from the field, including a scalding hot 17-for-23 (73.9%) from inside the arc. Conversely, the Buckeyes were aided by the three-pointer, going 6-for-15 (40%) from deep. The good guys were 14-for-33 (42.4%) overall in the first 20 minutes.
Justin Ahrens, who has had a rough go of it over the past month, hit back-to-back triples to give his squad a much-needed jolt of energy in the final minutes of the half. As the teams went into the locker room, Illinois led 41-37, thanks to an impressive last second put-back from E.J. Liddell to get the Bucks within four.
The home team came out hot after the intermission, scoring six straight to retake the lead. The two top-10 teams exchanged buckets and they were all square at 50-50 when there was an official’s timeout after OSU’s Justin Ahrens was poked in the eye.
Shortly thereafter, Walker picked up his fourth foul, sending him to the bench with around eight minutes remaining. Liddell hit back-to-back buckets to give OSU a 60-56 lead. The first field goal also coincided with the fourth foul on Illinois’ massive center Kofi Cockburn.
Those two baskets in the paint for Liddell were followed by a pair of three pointers for the Naismith contender — with a Duane Washington Jr. layup mixed in as well. The Buckeyes went up by four, but with 1:31 Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 68, and on their next possession, Ayo Dosunmu converted on an old-fashioned three-point play, and that was effectively all she wrote.
On the game, three players scored 19 points, Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo for Illinois, and Liddell for OSU. Washington and Justice Sueing also chipped in with 15 apiece. The Illini outshot the Buckeyes 51.9% to 40%, helped by a 10-point advantage (42-32) in the paint.
Killed down the stretch
The game, as is often the case in the Big Ten, was decided in the final minutes. Ohio State did not convert a field goal in the final 3:48 of the contest, with Washington going 0-for-5 during that stretch all on his own.
On the other hand, the Illini converted on five of their final eight attempts from the field. That’s more than enough to erase a four-point deficit, and it isn’t the first time that we’ve seen the Buckeyes give up a late lead this season.
Gotta go through your best player
In the two teams’ first matchup, Liddell had perhaps his best game as a collegiate player. He went 10-for-16 for 26 points and 7 boards. However, in the first half on Saturday, he was just 2-for-7 for five points. Despite Cockburn applying some intense pressure on the Buckeyes’ big man, Liddell more attempts from the field than any other player in the game other than Washington’s eight.
In the second half, it looked like Holtmann was going to make sure that his offense went through his best player. Liddell was nearly perfect in the second half going for 14 points after the break, hitting big shot after big shot.
When he is at his best, Liddell is a cheat code on offense. He can body in the paint with just about anybody, and he has shown a remarkable ability to step out and hit three-pointers in important situations, as he did multiple times on Saturday. There is no doubt that Liddell is a difference maker.
Defense wins championships
In the previous three seasons, Holtmann’s teams have been known for gritty, fundamentally sound defense. According to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics, from the 2017-18 season through last year’s abbreviated campaign, the Buckeyes rated as the 15th, 25th, and 20th, best teams in the country in terms of Adjusted Defensive numbers, but this season, they are currently 77th — the lowest of any team in the top 28.
And with all due respect to an obviously very good Buckeye team, it’s not hard to see that this version of the Scarlet and Gray just doesn’t expend as much energy on the defensive side of the floor as their predecessors did. Whether it is on closeouts or cuts or on-ball pressure, this year’s OSU squad doesn’t seem to have the tenacity that we are use to seeing from the Buckeyes.
Now, that makes sense, considering that their Adjusted Offensive numbers have gone from 23, 84, and 13 in the previous three seasons to No. 4 this year, but as the competition increases in the postseason, Ohio State must focus more of their attention and energy on the defensive end if they want to survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament.
With all of that being typed, after the halftime break, the Buckeyes appeared to turn up the defensive intensity considerably. In the second 20 minutes of the game, Illinois was held to just 9-of-23 (39.1%) from the field. However, it proved to be too little, too late as OSU couldn’t hold on to the lead.
Sometimes, size really does matter
In the four years of Holtmann’s tenure in Columbus, his rosters have been notable for their similar construction. A handful of solid guards and then a whole heap of interchangeable drill bit forwards. For the past four seasons, the Buckeyes have had a ton of 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8 wing and post players who could essentially rotate through the 3, 4, and 5 positions as needed.
With their athleticism and ability to guard (and score from) multiple positions, that has put them in a bunch of advantageous positions on both sides of the ball against most teams that they face. But, it has also meant that when opposing teams have an elite big man, those talented true centers have been able to essentially score at will; such was the case for Illinois’ seven-footer Kofi Cockburn on Saturday — at least in the first half.
Before halftime, Cockburn was 5-for-7 from the field, effectively having his way with Liddell. This is coming off of last Sunday’s contest against Iowa in which 6-foot-11 Iowa center Luka Garza was 10-for-16 for 24 points and 11 rebounds in a 73-57 butt-kicking of the Buckeyes.
Certainly, the Buckeyes can create mismatches on the offensive end by forcing a skyscraper to guard traditional wings, but the question is, is it worth the tradeoff on the other end? It sounds like a broken record, but there is no antidote for a talented big man on the defensive end, other than guarding him with another talented big man, or sending multiple players at him every time he touches the ball, and that’s exactly what OSU did in the second half.
Early on in the second 20 minutes, the Buckeyes started to double Cockburn every time the ball was given to the big man in the post, and it paid off. Despite having 10 points before the break, he finished the game with 12 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
Sueing serving Justice
It’s been an up-and-down first season on the floor in Columbus for Cal transfer Justice Sueing. After scoring in double-figures in five of his first six games, he has been chasing that level of consistency the rest of the year, as he has been just as likely to go 2-for-8 in a game as he has been to score a dozen.
However, early on against the Illini, Sueing was the Buckeyes’ most productive player and kept them in the game during a pair of Illinois runs. Sueing was OSU’s second leading scorer in the first half as he had 9 points and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes of first half action.
As the Buckeyes fought back-and-forth with the Illini in the second half, Sueing continued to have an impact on the game. He finished with 15 points and 8 rebounds, before fouling out with 00:44 remaining.
Is Ayo Dosunmu the Green Hornet?
Illinois’ leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu missed three games with a broken nose, but (conveniently) returned for the game against the Buckeyes. However, he did so with a new addition to his uniform.
tfw you are Ayo Dosunmu and you have a Big Ten bball game before the masquerade ball pic.twitter.com/ic5bGKhwfM— Redshirt Junior (@RedshirtJunior) March 6, 2021
And, being the nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Dosunmu wasn’t actually hurt, and instead he was out fighting crime with his trusty sidekick Kato as the masked vigilante the Green Hornet.
Just me? Ok, moving on.
Senior Night doesn’t always mean goodbye
While the Buckeyes honored both Walker and Young before the game, that doesn’t mean that Saturday was necessarily their final home game. On Friday, Holtmann confirmed that Walker will leave to pursue a professional career following this season, noting that he has a two-year old daughter.
Young, however, has not yet decided what he will be doing with the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players because of the unusual COVID-19 circumstances. Young has been one of the most important role players for the Buckeyes over the past three seasons, and while he has an unfortunate habit of missing games due to injury or illness, his leadership would certainly be valuable for next year’s team should he decide to return.
Young went for 2 points and 4 rebounds on the contest, and in the final home game of his career, Walker finished with 7 points, 6 boards, and 3 assists, including this fancy looking layup.