Ohio State and Illinois square off in Columbus on Thursday night. Both squads have found their groove after a tumultuous middle of the season. So, the winner of this Valentine’s Night showdown will be primed to hit the home stretch of the Big Ten schedule with plenty of momentum.
The Buckeyes prevailed in the first matchup
The Illini and Buckeyes met in December at the United Center. At the time, the Buckeyes looked like the more cohesive veteran unit while the Illini freshman duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili still did not have its sea legs under them.
Despite the freshman duo’s struggles, the Illini went into the half up 38-34, but the Buckeyes heated up in the second half as Kaleb Wesson and Keyshawn Woods took control of the game. Ohio State won 77-67.
What have the Buckeyes done since the December matchup
Following the December win against the Illini, Ohio State won three in row, including another victory in the United Center against UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic. Then things got dicey for the Buckeyes as they dropped their next five Big Ten games against Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue.
Since that grueling stretch, the Buckeyes have won four of their last five including a close win at Indiana this past Sunday. Now, the Buckeyes come into the matchup with Illinois at 6-6 in the Big Ten and 16-7 overall.
The Buckeyes’ offense runs through Kaleb Wesson
The Buckeyes overall play has mirrored the play of Kaleb Wesson— a 6-foot-9 sophomore from Westerville, Ohio, who has averaged 15 points a game. Wesson’s size and skill conjures up images of Buckeyes’ great Jared Sullinger. When Wesson is effective in — or near — the paint, the Buckeyes become a difficult team to stop.
From there, the Buckeyes have relied on the outside shooting of CJ Jackson, a 6-foot-1 junior from Charlotte, North Carolina, or Luther Mohammed, a 6-foot-1 freshman from Jersey City. Both Jackson and Mohammed shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc.
But defense is the Buckeyes’ strength
Ohio State is physical. Ohio State is scrappy. This is reflected in how they approach defense. When the Buckeyes’ offense struggles—typically when Wesson is struggling— they can sit back and rely on their defense, which is currently ranked No. 22 in the KenPom efficiency rankings.
Buckeyes’ NCAA Aspirations
Following their mid-season struggles, the Buckeyes found themselves squarely on the bubble. However, after winning four of their last five games, the Buckeyes are back in the good graces of the bracketologists and are projected as a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes still have a lot to play for this season. But, do not be fooled, the Illini might be far from the sight of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but Brad Underwood and the Illini have equally as much motivation
Ohio State wants to slow the game tempo while the Illini want to turn this into a high-scoring, up-tempo affair. The Buckeyes will drown if they play at the Illini’s pace, but the Illini can play at the Buckeyes’ pace and stay in the game. That is exactly what I think happens. Like most teams, the Buckeyes play better at home. So, they will likely play this one at their preferred pace, but the Illini are riding high and will hang in there. Ultimately, the Buckeyes prevail behind the inside play of Kaleb Wesson and their tough defense. The Illini, however, will stick around and make this a game.
Ohio State 62, Illinois 58
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