Following Saturday’s 83-58 smackdown road loss to Northwestern, Ohio State returns home tonight to face off against the No. 10 Illinois Fighting Illini in Columbus in the only matchup this season between the two teams.
Saturday’s loss to the Wildcats was the Buckeyes’ second consecutive loss (their fifth in their last six games), and the best they can hope for now is a 3-5 record in January. The Wildcats went into the game hot off their own victory over Illinois, and OSU was down 41-30 by halftime, saddled with shooting struggles.
By the under-8 media timeout, the Buckeyes trailed by 35 points — their largest deficit of the season — and they simply couldn’t find a way to shut down the Wildcats, particularly from three-point range. In the first half alone, Northwestern hit 7-for-13 from deep. Senior guard Boo Buie, whose team-high 29 points helped lead the Wildcats to victory over Illinois earlier in the week, put up 19 points in the win over the Buckeyes.
Memories of last season’s brutal January and February, when the Buckeyes lost 14 of 15 games, are bubbling to the surface as the team looks to keep themselves from further spiraling.
The Illini, for their part, head to Columbus after a hard-fought 70-62 victory against Indiana, a game in which the Illini were bolstered to a win by star guard Terrence Shannon Jr.’s six free throws in the final minute of the game, after a late-game surge by the Hoosiers.
Illinois currently sits two games behind Wisconsin in the conference standings, and Ohio State desperately needs this marquee win to close out January on a high note.
Entering tonight’s game, Illinois leads the all-time series, 110-82, though Ohio State has taken six of the last 10.
The last time Ohio State and Illinois faced off, back in February of last year, the Illini were expected to win easily on the road in Columbus. The Buckeyes were on a nine-game losing streak, the season was looking more and more disastrous by the day, and the Illini had their top player (Shannon) back at full strength after an injury.
The Buckeyes had other plans, and on the back of 20 points from then-freshman Bruce Thornton and 14 points from Brice Sensabaugh, OSU walked away with a 72-60 win, staving off a second-half Illinois run and making every one of their shots in the final 6:21 of the game.
Now, the Buckeyes will need to pull themselves out of a shooting slump if they’re going to have any shot at winning this game.
In Saturday’s game against Northwestern, the Buckeyes started the game just 1-for-5 from the field, with five of their first nine points coming from the free throw line. They finished the game shooting just 14-for-39 from the field and 5-for-19 from the three-point line.
The Buckeyes have been particularly unreliable from three-point range, shooting just 24.3% on three-pointers over the last five games. While Jamison Battle is 14-for-29 (48%), the rest of the team is shooting just 15.9% (13-for-82). They must knock in some threes if they have any hope of beating Illinois, a team averaging 82.1 points per game.
It won’t be easy against a team that, in their last outing, kept Indiana from making a single three-pointer all game. The Hoosiers shot 0-for-9 from three-point range. And three-pointers won’t be the only key to victory.
Thornton, who currently leads the team with an average of 16.1 points per game and 4.3 assists, along with Roddy Gayle and Battle, who are each averaging 13.8 points per game, will need to make their shots — be they threes or otherwise — against an Illini team who ranks 13th in the nation in effective field goal defense and 14th in 2-point field goal defense, according to KenPom.
Look to sophomore Bowen Hardman to potentially add some much-needed spark to the Buckeyes’ shooting. He finished the Northwestern game 1-for-2 on three pointers, but he was electric in only eight minutes of playing time against Nebraska, hitting 3-of-7 from downtown and finishing with 11 points. If Hardman can maintain accuracy and put up some big numbers in small pockets of time, he could be a major playmaker and momentum-shifter for the Buckeyes against an extremely talented Illinois team.
The Illini aren’t going to make it easy. They lead the Big Ten in rebounds per game (43.3), and they have out-rebounded their opponents in 14 of their 19 games this season. The Buckeyes are unlikely to get second chances if they can’t sink their shots against the Fighting Illini.
And as for playing defense, Ohio State will need to play next-to-perfect basketball if they hope to do enough to hold off the Illini.
Led by Shannon Jr., a senior guard averaging 19.9 points per game, and senior forward Marcus Domask, who is putting up 15.2 points per game and 3.5 assists, the Illini are capable of putting up big numbers.
Tonight’s game will mark Shannon’s fourth game back after a university-imposed suspension, as he faces a rape charge in Kansas. He was reinstated to the team after a federal judge granted him a preliminary injunction forcing them to do so.
Domask led the Illini in their outing against Indiana, putting up 16 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Coleman Hawkins and junior guard Luke Goode each put up 11 points in the win. Shannon, who got himself into foul trouble early, played only eight minutes in the first half but still acted as a playmaker, with 12 points, six rebounds and some clutch late-game free throws.
It was an ugly victory for a team that has played with style for much of the season (even in their overtime loss to Northwestern two games ago), but it was a testament to the Illini’s grit and resilience, something the Buckeyes will need to be prepared for come this evening. This presents a challenge for an Ohio State team that has struggled with three-point defense, and particularly in their losses to Indiana and Wisconsin, failed to execute defensively in the second half.
Still, the Buckeyes have performed better at home than on the road in the last year (the understatement of the century, given that they are on a 14-game road loss streak), and they will need to capitalize on their home court to repeat last season’s upset and right their ship before it goes further off course.
As the Buckeyes’ season has continued to nose dive throughout the month, January has felt like constant insult on top of injury, with their spot in the NCAA Tournament on the bubble — and that bubble on the brink of bursting. Missing the tournament for a second-consecutive season, particularly given how promising this team looked even a month ago, would be hugely disappointing, to say the least.
And yet, those are the stakes heading into February. Having dropped a few games they should have been able to win this month, the Buckeyes will have to dig deep and play near-perfect basketball against the Illini to keep their hopes alive.
Illinois has executed better in almost every facet of the game recently. The Buckeyes are not incapable of doing so—we saw glimpses of this in early-season marquee wins, but the sloppy errors and shooting woes of late will need to disappear to keep the Illini at bay.
Though Illinois leads steadily in points per game (82.1 to OSU’s 75.2), the teams are almost evenly matched on paper where turnovers and points allowed are concerned. Ohio State is averaging 10.1 turnovers per game to Illinois’ 10.9, and the Buckeyes have allowed an average of 68.2 points per game to Illinois’ 68.7.
But paper and performance under pressure are two different things, and the numbers on paper won’t mean much for the Buckeyes if they can’t pull out a big win to keep their postseason hopes from dying out completely. It’s not an impossible task, but they will need to play near-perfect basketball on all fronts, and they might also need a little bit of magic on their side against a top-10 Illinois team that has executed brilliantly for most of this season.
ESPN BPI: Illinois 67.1%
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET