Ohio State will try and keep their losing streak from reaching double digits today when they host the Illinois Fighting Illini. Today’s game is not only the second-to-last home game of the year for the Buckeyes, it is also Captain’s Day at Value City Arena, where roughly 30 past and presents captains within the program will be honored at halftime.
On Thursday night, Ohio State hung with Penn State but couldn’t earn their first win in over a month, falling to the Nittany Lions 75-71. The game was tight throughout with 20 lead changes, and seven minutes of game time where the score was tied. The Buckeyes took a 65-64 lead with 6:52 left on a Bruce Thornton jumper. Penn State would regain the lead for good just over a minute later on a Jalen Pickett bucket.
Like last Sunday’s game against Purdue, Ohio State again started four freshmen. Brice Sensabaugh led the team with 20 points, while Bruce Thornton finished with 19 points. Had Thornton scored one more point it would have marked the first time two Buckeye freshmen scored 20 points in a game since D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate each went for 20 points against Rutgers in 2015.
Along with Sensabaugh and Thornton, Justice Sueing and Issac Likekele both had a solid game on Thursday night. Sueing fell just a point short of a double-double, finishing with nine points to go along with 10 rebounds and four assists. Likekele also had four assists, seven points, and six rebounds. While those two were working hard, Sean McNeil was ice cold from the field, going 2-of-10 from the field, and 1-of-8 from three-point range.
Sensabaugh leads Ohio State with 16.6 points per game this year, which is fourth in the country among freshmen. The forward is one of just two active Buckeyes averaging double figures in scoring, with Justice Sueing putting in 11.9 points per contest. With 56 three-pointers this year, Sensabaugh has hit the second-most triples by a freshman in school history. D’Angelo Russell holds the mark for most threes by a freshman with 93 makes from behind the arc during his one season in Columbus.
The last time Ohio State won a game was over a month ago. Following the win at home over Iowa, the Buckeyes made the trip to Champaign to face Illinois. Not much went right for Chris Holtmann’s team in that game, as the Fighting Illini took a 34-26 lead into halftime, and led by double digits for most of the second half.
Ohio State shot just 36.7 percent from the field and were out-rebounded 44-30 by Illinois. Sensabaugh scored a team-high 14 points, while Sueing added 13 points in 21 minutes off the bench. Illinois was paced by Terrence Shannon Jr., who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds.
Three other Illinois players recorded at least 10 points in the victory. Jayden Epps netted 14 points, Matthew Mayer scored 12 points and pulled down eight rebounds, and Coleman Hawkins finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and three blocks. The win extended Illinois’ lead in the series to 109-81.
It looked like the Fighting Illini were in trouble last time they took the court. Brad Underwood’s team went into the halftime break in Champaign on Thursday night trailing Northwestern 37-19, and nearly halfway through the second half they hadn’t really cut into the deficit, trailing 52-36 with just over 11 minutes to go in regulation. Illinois would finish the game on a 30-10 run to win their second straight game.
After missing the previous two games due to concussion symptoms, Terrence Shannon Jr. returned to the court for Illinois on Thursday night. The Texas Tech transfer came off the bench and scored 26 points in 28 minutes, including the layup that gave Illinois a 63-61 lead over the Wildcats with 1:16 left in the game. Shannon is averaging 17.3 points per game, which leads the Fighting Illini. The guard does a great job at forcing opponents to foul him, as the 6.3 fouls he draws per 40 minutes is second in the Big Ten behind Purdue’s Zach Edey.
The success of the Fighting Illini this season is surprising considering how much they last from last year’s squad. Underwood was tasked with trying to replace 86 percent of the scoring from last season, 80 percent of the rebounding, and 83 percent of the minutes played. It was a rocky start for Illinois, as thy lost their first three Big Ten games of the season, but have gone 10-4 in conference play since.
An area where Ohio State is going to have to be careful is when they take the basketball near the basket since Illinois is one of the best teams in the country at blocking shots. The Fighting Illini have blocked 162 shots this year, which ties a single-season school record. With 5.8 blocks per game, Illinois leads the Big Ten, and rank third in the country. Matthew Mayer, Dain Dainja, and Coleman Hawkins each have blocked at least 30 shots this season.
While Terrence Shannon Jr. is the team’s leading scorer, Matthew Mayer has been the hottest scorer for Illinois lately. Mayer has reached double figures on the score sheet in seven of the last eight games. In four of those games, Mayer has scored at least 20 points. For the season, Mayer is averaging 12.6 points per game, as well as 5.4 rebounds per game.
Along with Shannon and Mayer, Dain Dainja and Jayden Epps are each averaging at least 10 points per game. Being a freshman, Epps is a bit of a wild card and inconsistent with his play. On Monday, Epps scored 17 points in a win over Minnesota, and then a few days later he failed to score a point against Northwestern. Just behind Epps is Coleman Hawkins, who is averaging 9.8 points per game, and is also contributing 6.4 rebounds per game, as well as 3.0 assists per contest.
It was encouraging to see Ohio State show some fight and taken Penn State down to the wire on Thursday night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to snap their losing streak. Ending their losing skid won’t get any easier today against a team in the top-half of the Big Ten standings.
What is worrying about this game for the Buckeyes is how well Illinois uses their length. Ohio State lost a lot of size when Zed Key was ruled out for the rest of the season due to the shoulder injury he suffered. Felix Okpara does have the ability to become a force in the post, but he isn’t quite consistent enough yet with his play. These last few games of the season will help to set the table for a breakout season next year.
On Thursday, Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton did all they could to put the team on their backs. Justice Sueing and Issac Likekele contributed to the cause, but it’s obvious that the lack of depth is hurting the Buckeyes, especially late in the Big Ten regular season where everyone is banged up after the grind that conference play has been.
There are a lot of similarities between Illinois and Ohio State. Both teams lost a number of key players from last year’s tournament teams, forcing them to rely heavily on freshmen and transfers. How Illinois has handled this season is how Ohio State had hoped their season has went. This could have been a lost season for the Fighting Illini, but Brad Underwood and his team stayed strong after some early adversity in the season.
While it has to be said that it is tough to win on the road in the Big Ten, apparently it’s not so hard to win in Columbus since teams keep coming to Value City Arena and taking down the Buckeyes. Right now there is no juice with the Ohio State program, so it’s understandable why attendance and excitement is lacking.
With Illinois hosting Michigan on Thursday before closing out the regular season at Purdue, this is a game the Fighting Illini desperately need if they want to stay in the mix for a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Even though Ohio State could play spoiler here, right now they don’t have the depth, length, or positive morale to upset Illinois. The Buckeyes put forth a solid effort, but that only gets them so far.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 54.1%
Time: 12:00 p.m. ET