Ohio State sits in a precarious spot in the standings heading into Thursday night’s late night tilt against No. 15 Illinois (19-7, 12-4) in Champaign. The No. 22 Buckeyes (17-7, 10-5) are technically still alive in the Big Ten title hunt with five losses and five games to go. They’re two games behind first-place Purdue, who has four losses but have played two more games than Ohio State.
So while the chances of them winning out + Purdue losing one or two games is not great, the Buckeyes aren’t exactly “playing spoiler” tonight, either. Ohio State is a conference title contender, will likely be a four or five-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and has shown the ability to hang with and beat anyone in the nation. They aren’t some plucky underdog hopping off the bus in Illinois thinking they have no shot to win — they’re a legitimate threat to Illinois’ title hopes.
Like Ohio State, the Fighting Illini don’t have much wiggle room if they want to win their first B1G title since 2005. A loss at home to the Buckeyes this evening would be a fatal blow to a team that’s lost two of their last four games after starting out 10-2 in conference play. If this plays out similarly to the last few matchups between these two squads, then we’ll be in for a quite a treat tonight.
The last time these two teams met, they combined for 189 points and knocked down 17 three-pointers during the Fighting Illini’s 91-88 overtime victory in the Big Ten Tournament’s championship game on March 14, 2021. A Buckeye squad that went into the BTT having lost four straight games ripped off three wins in three days before pushing the white-hot Illini to overtime in Indianapolis.
Duane Washington Jr. scored a career-high 32 points, Justice Sueing had 22, and CJ Walker chipped in 16 off the bench, but it was not enough. Illinois berated the Buckeyes like a tireless boxer, with six guys scoring in double-digits — four of whom (Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, Da’Monte Williams) are still on the team now.
The two teams are in similar positions this season, with Illinois right at the top of the Big Ten and the Buckeyes hovering closely behind them. Ohio State will be the underdogs on the road, but have reasons to be optimistic about their chances. One reason is that the Buckeyes won in the State Farm Center last season behind 26 points and 7 rebounds from All-American candidate E.J. Liddell. Liddell has loved playing his home-state school in his career, averaging 16 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in four career games against Illinois.
Brad Underwood’s squad shook off a tough road loss to Rutgers on Feb. 16 by traveling to East Lansing and handing Tom Izzo’s Spartans their fourth loss in five games this past Saturday, 79-74. The fellows in orange — clearly — base their offense around their B1G/National POY candidate and absurdly thick center, Kofi Cockburn (21.7 PPG, 11.2 REB). At an even 7-foot and nearly 290 pounds, Cockburn has the height and weight advantage over pretty much every player in college basketball.
He doesn’t have much of a mid-range game, and he doesn’t dare shoot from beyond the arc, but once Kofi establishes position down low, the jig is up. Ohio State does not have the size to throw at Cockburn to discourage low post touches, either. Like last season, Chris Holtmann will have to find a good mix of double-teaming Cockburn outright and sending temporary help defense that can curl off once Cockburn gets rid of the ball in the paint. Illinois is built a lot like Purdue — you cannot afford to go one-on-one with their center, but you also cannot afford to leave anyone open on the perimeter.... which mathematically just does not add up!
However, there are reasons to believe that the Buckeyes could poke some holes in Illinois’ seemingly foolproof setup. Illinois is a fine three-point shooting team, knocking them down at a 35.9% clip (5th in the B1G). However, of their players who play at least 10 minutes per game, only two shoot 37% of better from downtown — Alfonso Plummer (39.2%) and Jacob Grandison (41.8%). Williams was one of the conference’s elite shooters last season, but is shooting just 30.8% from deep this season. Frazier hits a ton of timely shots, but overall knocks down his threes at just 34.2%.
But what do those numbers mean for this game? It gives us reason to believe that denying Cockburn the ball and forcing him to find the open shooter may produce some fine results. Ohio State is actually a better three-point shooting team than Illinois this season, knocking down 37.4% of their threes (3rd in the B1G). Additionally, Kofi is averaging 2.3 turnovers per game and only dishing out about one assist per game (0.9), indicating that the “have Kofi kick it out to a shooter” strategy hasn’t worked as often as you’d think it would.
Here’s a spot where it did work:
Another area Ohio State will need to step up in a big way is one that they’ve struggled with mightily lately — offensive and defensive rebounding. The Buckeyes allowed Iowa to grab 20 offensive rebounds this past weekend, and followed it up by watching Indiana — the 10th-best rebounding team in the B1G — grab 15 of them. Illinois leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 39.7 boards per game and are second in offensive rebounding with 11.9 per game. The Buckeyes — in comparison — are 11th in rebounding and 12th in offensive rebounding.
Following Ohio State’s victory over Indiana, I asked Chris Holtmann why teams are having so much success cleaning up the glass against Ohio State. He said that it’s a combination of long rebounds and some poor luck, but that teams are also just beating the Buckeyes to a lot of loose balls. “That’s on me, I have to coach that better,” he said. “Because that is absolutely unacceptable.”
While Holtmann’s team absolutely has some work to do to keep up with Illinois on the glass, they do have a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball award winner on their team in Liddell. As stated earlier, Liddell had three tremendous games against Illinois before a stinker in the Big Ten Tournament last season (12 points). For the most part, he has torched his home state school. It’s not a “chip on the shoulder” deal, either. Illinois recruited the heck out of Liddell and wanted him in orange badly. Head coach Brad Underwood has spoken at length several times about how badly he wanted Liddell. Instead, he opted to don the scarlet and gray.
Liddell presents a unique challenge for this Illinois team. If the Buckeyes choose to go small at any point — most likely Kyle Young in for Zed Key — Cockburn will be put in a difficult situation. Underwood will need his star center to follow either Young or Liddell in that spot, meaning Kofi will have to rotate to the perimeter a bit — something he absolutely does not want to do. Of course, Underwood could also opt to sit his big man in this situation, or default to a zone defense. Illinois doesn’t have one player who matches up well with Liddell’s size and shooting. He’s going to cause them some problems as he always has, especially if Holtmann throws a curveball and goes with a smaller lineup sans Key.
The way I see it, Ohio State is playing with house money. I know that’s not a “winner’s” mentality, but facts are facts. Illinois crashes the boards with reckless abandon, and the Buckeyes have struggled mightily in that department lately. Cockburn doesn’t just tower over every single Buckeye, he also has pretty much the entire roster by 40-50 pounds. He’s just an all-around nightmare to defend. He’s a freak.
It’s also wildly difficult to win on the road in the Big Ten, and Illinois is 11-2 at home this season. The game has already sold out, and Illinois is in the hunt for their first regular season championship in 17 years. The place is going to be loud. If things start to snowball, it could get out of hand quickly.
I think Liddell will have a bounce-back game after being ill against Indiana and struggling a bit. Malaki Branham (11.8 PPG) has come on lately too, but it may take 50+ combined points from those two for Ohio State to pull this one off.
ESPN BPI: Illinois 72.8%
Line (According to DraftKings Sportsbook): Illinois (-6)
Time: 9 p.m. ET