On Thursday, Illinois (19-7, 12-4) will face Ohio State (17-7, 10-5) in a crucial home game to maintain its spot at the top of the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes are coming off a big home win against Indiana while the Illini are looking to build upon their victory against Michigan State. Ohio State will have its hands full trying to slow down Kofi Cockburn and the rest of the Illini.
Let’s take a look at a few things before the game.
So Far This Season
Ohio State has been near the top of the Big Ten standings throughout the season and is currently two games back from the leaders. They had an up and down start with losses to Xavier and Seton Hall and victories over Duke and Florida.
The Buckeyes have won three of their last four, including wins over Michigan and Indiana, but they have struggled against the top teams in the Big Ten. Ohio State is an especially efficient on the offensive end shooting 47% from the floor this season. They are vulnerable on the defense and on the boards where Illinois has a big size advantage.
The Buckeyes are led by E.J. Liddell (19.7 PPG) — a native of Belleville — and was recruited heavily by the Illini. He is extremely effective in the midrange and around the net. Kofi will be matched up with E.J. for most of the game, and he will try to take advantage of his size like Kofi was able to against Wisconsin. The last time they met was in the Big Ten Championship where E.J. held Kofi to 15 points. Cockburn will need to play a large role for Illinois to win.
Freshman Malaki Branham (11.2 PPG) has played an important role for the Buckeyes recently scoring 27 points against Indiana. Branham is effective at getting to the net and on the defensive end. He is also shooting 45% from 3-point range. Trent Frazier will be matched up with him throughout the game, and Trent will try to pester him as he does so well. Another scoring option is forward Zed Key (9 PPG), who is prominent around the net and could be matched up with Kofi if E.J. is struggling. With a strong defensive effort, the Illini can limit the impact of Branham and Key.
For Illinois to keep up with Purdue and earn at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, the Illini need to have this game. Ohio State will need to limit Kofi’s impact in the interior and force the Illini to take tough shots. The Buckeyes will try to double Kofi, forcing him to pass the ball and get him into foul trouble early. This would limit the effectiveness of Illinois offense.
Overall, the Illini size up well to Ohio State, as Brad Underwood’s team has had success against smaller teams. Expect Andre Curbelo to have a bounce-back game — he only scored 3 points against Michigan State. Frazier needs to have a large impact on the offensive end as he has struggled to score recently. The Illini will need a strong effort on both sides of the floor to prevail.
As we know, no conference game in the Big Ten is easy, so expect this game to come down to the wire.