Basketball Preview: Ohio State Faces Stiffest Road Test Yet At Illinois

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 16, 2021 at 7:15 am
E.J. Liddell
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly one week ago, Ohio State proved it can beat a quality Big Ten team on the road.

So, can it also win a game away from Columbus against one of the favorites to win the Big Ten? We're about to find out.

Seven days after handling then-No. 15 Rutgers in Piscataway, New, Jersey, the No. 21 Buckeyes (10-3, 4-3) tip off a game against No. 14 Illinois (9-4, 5-2) at noon Saturday at the State Farm Center.

Who Where When TV
Illinois (9-4, 5-2) Champaign, Illinois (State Farm Center) 12 p.m. FOX

This, their first of two games against the preseason Big Ten favorite, is a prime opportunity for head coach Chris Holtmann's squad to make a statement. A win against the Illini on the road with a banged-up roster and depleted depth at guard, even without a packed house filled with opposing fans, would certify the Buckeyes as a team that should be taken seriously within the deepest – and, as Holtmann often says, quite possibly the best – conference in the country.

So far, Ohio State has beaten UCLA in Cleveland, Notre Dame in South Bend and Rutgers both home and away. A win in enemy territory versus the Illini – if it actually happens – would be right up there with the Bruins victory as the best of the season.

Head coach Brad Underwood won't make it easy on the Buckeyes, though. His Illinois team hasn't totally lived up to the sky-high expectations and is coming off of a three-point home loss on Sunday to Maryland, but it's ranked in the top-15 for a reason. It has wins against Duke, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern, and it'll want to add Ohio State to the list on Saturday afternoon.

Three Things To Watch

Talented Backcourt Vs. Thin Backcourt

In an alternate world in which Iowa phenom Luka Garza had left for the NBA after his Big Ten Player of the Year honor a year ago, Ayo Dosunmu would've been a shoe-in for the preseason award a few months ago. Instead, it went to Garza and Dosunmu had to settle for a preseason unanimous All-Big Ten pick instead. Not too shabby.

So far as a junior, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Dosunmu has raised his game another notch or two. He trails only Garza in the conference by averaging 22.4 points per game, showcasing a deadly three-level scoring ability with 49.8 percent shooting from the floor and 42.4 percent shooting from behind the arc, while draining 81.2 percent of his more than five free-throw attempts per game. And, to the detriment of the Buckeyes, he's not alone.

Senior Trent Frazier and freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo are quality offensive threats as well, each averaging between eight and 10 points per game. Miller and Frazier are each shooting at least 36 percent from 3-point range on a team that ranks fifth in the country from outside shooting (41.2 percent), and Curbelo – a high-school teammate of Zed Key – averages 4.6 assists. Together, they power an offense that ranks No. 9 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

The issue for Ohio State? It has few guys to counter them with.

CJ Walker remains out for the foreseeable future as his torn ligaments in his right hand heal, and it's unlikely that Jimmy Sotos will be able to give it a go a week after suffering a shoulder injury. So, once again, Ohio State is expected to rely on Justice Sueing, Duane Washington Jr. and, in limited time, Meechie Johnson as its primary ball-handlers. They played well enough to top Northwestern earlier this week, but the Illini backcourt is another level entirely. 

Battle On The Blocks

Even Dawand Jones would look at Kofi Cockburn and say, "Who's that guy?"

The 7-foot, 285-pound behemoth averages a double-double with 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game, using his size to overwhelm in the post. As a freshman last season, Cockburn recorded only six points and three boards in 23 minutes during Illinois' loss to Ohio State, but Holtmann could throw Kaleb Wesson at him back then. Now, he'll have to make do with Kyle Young (6-foot-8, 225 pounds), E.J. Liddell (6-foo-7, 245 pounds) and Zed Key (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) banging down low with him.

Cockburn's presence has allowed Illinois to rank 36th in offensive-rebounding rate (34 percent) and 15th in opposing offensive-rebounding rate (20.7 percent). It might not be sexy, but the ability of Young, Liddell and Key to get on the glass could determine this game's outcome.

Illinois Vs. E.J.

Speaking of Liddell...

Plenty of Illini fans haven't forgotten about the former top-50 recruit from Belleville, Illinois, spurning their favorite program in order to attend Ohio State. He subsequently gave them more reason to dislike him when the then-freshman secured his first career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds against them in a 71-63 victory in the second-to-last regular season game a season ago.

Illinois would want nothing more than to hand Liddell a loss, and to do just that, it'll have to keep him individually in check. 

Prediction: Illinois 78, Ohio State 74

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