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Know Your Opponent: Ohio State Buckeyes

The Illini look to get back on track.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday morning, Illinois hosts No. 21 Ohio State in a ranked matchup at State Farm Center. After a disappointing loss to Maryland last Sunday, the Illini will look to right the ship against the Buckeyes.

Last Season

In the teams’ lone meeting last year, Ohio State beat the Illini 71-63 in Columbus during the last week of the season. Kaleb Wesson led the Buckeyes with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and Ohio State got major contributions from two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell as well. Liddell finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench, earning himself his first-career double-double. For the Illini, Ayo Dosunmu put up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in one of his best games of the season. He didn’t get much help though, as Andres Feliz was the only other Illini in double figures.

Despite losing to the Buckeyes, the Illini actually had a similar season to them. They both finished with a 21-10 record, and Illinois and OSU were ranked 21st and 19th in the final AP poll, respectively.

This Season

Ohio State enters Saturday’s meeting at 10-3, with a 4-3 record in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes have shown flashes of dominance this season, with a 36-point win over Nebraska and an 11-point win at Rutgers just a week ago. They’ve been very inconsistent, however, as they also struggled to beat Cleveland State and UMass Lowell.

OSU is coming off an 81-71 win over Northwestern, and it currently sits in 5th place in the Big Ten.

Players to Watch

After losing Kaleb Wesson to the NBA Draft, the Buckeyes don’t have any stars, but Chris Holtmann has still put together a very competitive roster, and he knows how to get the most of it.

Junior guard Duane Washington leads the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game to go along with 3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He is complemented by former Illini target E.J. Liddell, who leads the Buckeyes with 6.7 rebounds a night, and CJ Walker, the offense’s primary facilitator (4.2 assists per game). Should the game come down to the final minutes, the Illini would do best not to foul Walker, as he leads the Big Ten in free-throw shooting (minimum of 12 attempts) at 97.7% (42-43). Forwards Kyle Young and Justice Sueing round out the starting lineup, and they do a little bit of everything for Ohio State.

Freshman big man Zed Key provides a fun storyline in this matchup, as he played his high school basketball with Andre Curbelo at Long Island Lutheran. After years of running the pick and roll with Curbelo, Key will be tasked with defending it.

What to Expect

For all the talk of Illinois’ elite offense (9th in the country), Ohio State’s (8th) is actually slightly better, at least according to KenPom. The strange thing about the Buckeyes, though, is that they’re not actually that great at making shots. They rank 125th in effective field goal percentage, while just one other top-10 offense ranks outside even the top 25 in the metric. What makes Ohio State’s offense so efficient is that they’re great at everything else. They’re 12th in turnover percentage, 51st in offensive rebounding percentage, and 27th in free throw rate. When you’re great at taking care of the ball, getting to the free throw line, and generating second-chance opportunities, you don’t have to be great at making shots to have an elite offense.

What this means for Illinois is that even though OSU’s offense is great, it is defendable. Ohio State won’t beat you with incredible talent or shot-making ability. They will just play extraordinarily sound basketball. To defend them, then, Illinois has to play extraordinarily sound defense. Don’t bail them out by fouling, and don’t give them any second chances.

Offensively, the Illini will need to get out in transition. Illinois’ last four games have been its four slowest of the season, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the worst four-game stretch the Illini have had on offense. The problem is that Ohio State is one of the slowest-paced teams in the country, ranking 292nd in adjusted tempo. If the Buckeyes control the pace of the game, Illinois could have some trouble scoring in the half court.

Even if Ohio State can keep Illinois out of transition, the Illini have an ace in the hole, and his name is Kofi Cockburn. Few teams can defend Kofi at all, but Ohio State should have more trouble than most. The Buckeyes don’t play anybody taller than 6’8”, and that’s not nearly big enough to defend the behemoth that is Kofi. I expect them to aggressively double team Kofi, but when they’re giving up so much size, there’s only so much they can do.

Illinois should win, but this game does scare me a bit. Chris Holtmann is one of the best at picking apart opponents’ weaknesses, and Ohio State is ranked for a reason. The Buckeyes keep it competitive for 39 minutes, but Illinois pulls away with free throws to seal it.

Prediction: Illinois 70, Ohio State 66