The No. 23 Illinois Fighting Illini look to move into a first-place tie atop the Big Ten standings when they travel to face the No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes on Thursday night. Illinois can tie Wisconsin, Michigan State and Maryland atop the standings with each having one game to play with a win over the Buckeyes.
The Illini have won four straight coming into this game, rebounding nicely from a four-game losing streak to start February. The Buckeyes have also been resurgent, winning eight of their last 10 after going 1-6 in a stretch from late December to late January. Ohio State can move into a tie for fifth place in the Big Ten standings with Penn State and Iowa with a win in this one, or still have a chance to not get a bye in the conference tournament with a loss.
Ohio State is a 5.5-point favorite at home, with the over/under set at 132.
A one-point home loss to Michigan State was part of the Illini’s four-game losing streak, but it also saw guard Ayo Dosunmu, the team’s leading scorer, go down with a knee injury at the end of the contest. The injury looked bad, but fortunately, Dosunmu only missed one game, and he’s come back better than ever.
In the four games since he returned from the injury — all Illini wins — Dosunmu is averaging 20.0 points and shooting 53.4 percent from the field, up from his season average of 16.4 points. Having the playmaking guard in the lineup gives the rest of the Illinois lineup much more confidence as well, as shown by the team’s success since his return.
Freshman big man Kofi Cockburn has been rock solid this season, averaging 13.6 points and 9.0 rebounds. He’ll be a big factor against the Ohio State front line that doesn’t have a lot of size. Guards Trent Frazier (9.2 points) and Andres Feliz (10.9 points) should find some open looks as well with the Buckeyes focusing on stopping the big man in the paint.
Back In Form
The Buckeyes were one of the top teams in the nation to start the season, but they fell off in early January and have been scrambling to get back to form ever since. Ohio State has been doing it with defense, ranking second in the league by holding opponents to just 62.3 points per game. The Buckeyes also like to beat teams from long distance, leading the Big Ten by hitting 37.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Still, the offensive leader for Ohio State is junior Kaleb Wesson, who averages 14.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Wesson has also taken his game to the perimeter, hitting 43 percent from three-point range. He’ll likely drift to the outside more against the 7-foot Cockburn.
Guard Duane Washington Jr. and forward Andre Wesson are also dangerous scorers, averaging 11.4 and 9.3 points per game, respectively, with each hitting more than 40 three-pointers this season as well. Illinois won in Columbus a season ago, but being Senior Night, there will certainly be an emotional crowd behind the Buckeyes in this one.
Buckeyes Pull One Out
Illinois is playing well, even on the road, and could make a run at the Big Ten tournament title next week. But Ohio State is a veteran team playing a final home game for its seniors, and that experience should be the difference in this one. I see a close game throughout, but the Buckeyes pull away late to win and cover. I’m taking Ohio State -5.5.