It has been a rough month of January for the Ohio State men’s basketball team — something that has become all-too-common for the Buckeyes in recent years — but Chris Holtmann’s team was finally able to get off the schneid and end their five-game losing streak with an emphatic win over Iowa in front of the home fans this past Saturday.
Ohio State scored 93 points in their win over the Hawkeyes, their most against a Power-5 opponent this season and their highest point total in their last eight games since scoring a season-high 95 points against Maine back in December. Leading the way in the double-digit victory was none other than freshman sensation Brice Sensabaugh, who dropped a game-high 27 points on an incredibly efficient 10-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.
In addition to Sensabaugh, Isaac Likekele put on a show doing a little bit of everything, finishing just shy of a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. As a team, it was the second-best shooting performance of the year outside of that game against Maine, as the Buckeyes shot a collective 56% from the floor and 50% from long range. Defensively, Ohio State forced its second-most turnovers of the season, as Iowa gave the ball up 14 times.
Ohio State was favored heading into that game at home, but things will get tougher on Tuesday night when they head to Champaign to take on Illinois. The Buckeyes haven’t hit the road a ton thus far, with only five games played outside of Columbus on the year, and they have not fared well away from the friendly confines with a 1-4 road record.
Illinois is a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten right now, sitting at 13-6 overall with a 4-4 record in Big Ten play, but they have been really solid at home with a 9-2 record at the State Farm Center.
The Illini have some pretty big wins under their belt this season, knocking off No. 8 UCLA early in the new campaign while also featuring wins over then-No. 2 Texas and then-No. 14 Wisconsin, the former of which looks much better than the latter. They also, however, have a handful of losses to some mid-tier teams, including double-digit home losses to Penn State and Missouri as well as an away game against Maryland (whom Ohio State also lost to on the road this year).
In a bit of a polar opposite to how Ohio State’s January has gone, Illinois was riding a four-game winning streak until their most recent loss to Indiana this past Thursday. Dropping an 80-65 contest at home, Illinois had their second-worst shooting performance of the season, hitting only 39% of their shots as a team. Outside of Terrence Shannon, who scored a team-high 26 points, no other starter reached double-digits. In fact, only one other player on the team overall reached double-figures in scoring — 10 points by backup guard RJ Melendez.
On top of the poor shooting night from the floor, it didn’t help the Illini that they were out-rebounded 39-27 by the Hoosiers. Illinois also made just nine of their 23 attempts from the free throw line, good for their worst performance from the charity stripe of the season.
The Illini will hope to get things back on track on Tuesday night, where they will likely once again be let by the senior guard Shannon. A three-year starter at Texas Tech before transferring to Illinois this year, Shannon is averaging both a team-high and career-high 18.1 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The big 6-foot-6 guard was a veteran of 83 games played with the Red Raiders before taking his talents to Champaign prior to this season, totaling 915 points with his former program.
Changes to the starting lineup have led to some of the recent success for Illinois, as Brad Underwood’s team is 5-2 since inserting Sencire Harris and Dain Dainja into the starting five.
Harris, a 6-foot-4 freshman out of St. Vincent-St. Mary, was the No. 2 player out of Ohio and the No. 15 shooting guard in the 2022 class. The first-year guard hasn’t added a ton scoring-wise since joining the starting lineup, averaging just 3.9 points over the seven-game span, but he has been efficient as a ball-handler, averaging less than one turnover per game. The 6-foot-9 Dainja, on the other hand, has averaged 11.3 points per game over that same span, and the forward has been a force on the glass with 6.7 boards and 2.4 blocks per game over this seven-game stint as a starter.
Speaking of changes to the starting lineup, Ohio State moved some things around in their latest win against Iowa as Holtmann looked to find some sort of spark to stop the skid, with Roddy Gayle Jr. and Isaac Likekele entering the starting five in place of Justice Sueing and Sean McNeil. Whether it was the changed lineup or not, the Buckeyes finally found some of the offense that was lacking during their five-game losing streak, wherein they averaged just under 67 points per game and shot 40 percent as a team.
Ohio State’s offense has been buoyed all season by the freshman Sensabaugh, who is almost certainly at this point a one-and-done player destined for the NBA Draft at the end of this season. While his defense leaves a bunch to be desired, he is unquestionably a dominant scorer at the other end, averaging a team-high 17.5 points per game on over 51% shooting from the floor and just under 48% from three-point range. At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Sensabaugh is super efficient and can score from pretty much anywhere on the court.
If the Buckeyes want to keep up their winning ways, they will need to get more out of Justice Sueing. The senior forward has gone ice cold as of late, averaging a little over eight points per game while shooting a paltry 30% over the team’s last four games. The Buckeyes also dont know how much they will get from Zed Key against Illinois, after the forward injured his knee late against Iowa, but he is expected to give it a go on Tuesday night. Key was already banged up prior to this latest injury, as he’s been wearing a wrap on his shoulder ever since injuring it against Purdue six games ago.
Key’s status will be crucial in this one, as Illinois is a rather large basketball team. The shortest player on the Illini starting five is Harris at 6-foot-4, with all four other guys standing 6-foot-6 and taller — including Dainja and guard/forward Matthew Mayer at 6-foot-9 and forward Coleman Hawkins at 6-foot-10. We should expect to see a good amount of 6-foot-11 Ohio State center Felix Okpara in this one, as they will need his size. The reserve has performed admirably this year in limited playing time.
Illinois is a tale of two basketball teams. Whereas many of Ohio State’s losses have been close, the Illini either win big or lose big. In fact, Illinois has not played a game that was decided by less than nine points since their overtime win against Texas on Dec. 6 — one of only two Illini games this season that were decided by nine points or fewer. This is a very talented roster, but you never really know which Illinois team is going to show up an any given night.
On the Ohio State side of things, the availability of Key concerns me. All signs point to him being ready to go, but that front court gets really thin really fast if he is unable to play or even limited. While Illinois may not have a Zach Edey or Hunter Dickinson to truly take advantage of an undersized Buckeye squad, that size difference could very well play a factor in the long run of this game.
In the five games played between these two teams in Champaign dating back to 2014, Ohio State holds a 4-1 advantage. The Buckeyes are also 11-4 against the Illinois overall in the last 15 meetings between the programs, but the series is all tied up at 3-3 over the last six.
Illinois isn’t a team that plays close games, but those are seemingly the only types of games Ohio State is capable of playing, so something has to give here. It will be interesting to see if the Buckeyes stick with the same starting five that helped them earn a win in their last time out, and maybe coming off the bench has helped light a fire under Sueing moving forward. This Illini team is good, but they are too inconsistent for my blood. I think Key plays and Holtmann’s group finds a way to build off the Iowa win and makes it two in a row.
ESPN BPI: Illinois 55.8%
Spread: ILL -4
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET