Road warriors. That phrase describes the 2019-20 Illinois Fighting Illini. When Illinois heads to Columbus to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes, it will be the Illini’s final regular season road game. Road wins at Michigan, at Wisconsin and at Penn State are three of Illinois’ best NCAA Tournament résumé accomplishments.
Can Illinois notch another at Ohio State?
“We’re into the last week, we’re still alive and kicking,” Brad Underwood said in response to whether or not Illinois is still in the hunt for a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
Ohio State is the next game, and the Illini have to be ready.
How the Buckeyes Have Done
Ohio State is 20-9 and 10-8 in Big Ten play, riding a three-game win streak into this game against the Illini. Two of those three games were wins against ranked foes Maryland and Michigan.
Ohio State is considered in when it comes to NCAA Tournament projections. Its best wins are against very good non-conference opposition in Kentucky and Villanova. Like the Illini, the Buckeyes swept their season series against Michigan. Ohio State does not have any bad losses — the Buckeyes dropped both of their games to a reeling Minnesota Golden Gophers team, but that won’t hurt them much come selection Sunday.
Since this is the first time Illinois has played the Buckeyes all season, let’s take a look at some players you may not be so familiar with.
E.J. Liddell is a name Illini fans will know, but he’s not the biggest difference maker on Ohio State. The true freshman comes off of the bench and averages a little less than 16 minutes per game. The back-to-back Illinois Mr. Basketball is a solid player who has a bright future ahead of him in Columbus.
CJ Walker is new on Ohio State this year after sitting out last season. He’s a transfer from Florida State and does a good job of running the Buckeyes’ offense. Defensively, he’s one of the best point guards in the Big Ten and is third in the conference in steals-per-game.
Along with Liddell, D.J. Carton was a big-time recruit in Ohio State’s class. He’s missed the last nine games because of personal reasons.
Alonzo Gaffney is another ‘waiting in the wings’ forward. He averages less than seven minutes a game and only really plays when the Wesson brothers are in foul trouble. He has not played in the last three games.
Kaleb Wesson is an absolute load (literally and figuratively) and presents the toughest mismatch not just for anyone on Illinois, but for the entire Big Ten Conference as a whole. When you have a player who is 6-foot-9, 270 pounds and can knock down threes at a clip of 43 percent — you have a nearly unguardable big man. Wesson averages 14 points and just under 10 rebounds per game. He goes to the foul line a lot and is pretty good once he gets there; he’s a 72 percent free throw shooter this year.
Wesson has played 94 games in his collegiate career. He’s a seasoned vet at this point and is the team’s leader in most statistical categories. He’s deceptively fast, too. When he has the ball at the top of the key or even on the perimeter, he’s agile enough with his first step to blow by opposing big men and zip through for the dunk.
We’d be remiss if we did not also mention sophomore shooting guard Duane Washington Jr. This is a player who’s on the court for pretty much the entire game and against Michigan on Sunday he went off, making 5-of-7 from the three-point line. He’s a streaky shooter and a good defender — and overall another really sound, Big Ten guard.
Beware 3-Point Shooting
Unlike Indiana on Sunday, Ohio State is the best three-point team in the Big Ten. Especially at home, the Buckeyes can make it rain from behind the arc. Ohio State is a much better three-point shooting team than the Illini, and that’s something Brad Underwood will clearly be stressing in practice and game preparation this week. It should also be noted that Illinois is one of the best teams in the conference at defending the three.
The Buckeyes have so many guys that can step up from deep on any given night. Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Duane Washington Jr., Justin Ahrens and even Luther Muhammed — none of them can be left alone behind the arc.
For any other Big Ten team on the road, you’d scrap it and say “no chance.” The Illini have beaten Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State on the road already this season, and the unfriendly environments seems to bring out the best in Ayo Dosunmu, much like it did for his idol Kobe Bryant.
Underwood has stressed perimeter defense as one the most crucial ingredients towards cooking up a win on the road. He mentioned so after the Penn State road win a few weeks ago. The Nittany Lions were held to just 4-of-19 from the three-point line, and Illinois will likely need another performance and stat-line similar to that one to earn the victory.
Call me crazy, but I think the Illini do it. They are so locked in defensively, and the fact that they have four days to prepare for this, scout, watch film, and rest up makes me believe they get it done.