Basketball Preview: Ohio State Travels to Illinois to Take on Kofi Cockburn and The Fighting Illini

By Griffin Strom on February 24, 2022 at 8:35 am
E.J. Liddell, Kofi Cockburn
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It took overtime to separate the pair by just a three-point margin when they faced off for the Big Ten crown last season, and Ohio State and Illinois have waited nearly a year to run it back in 2022.

The conference tournament championship game was the third time the Buckeyes and Fighting Illini met last season, with each game being decided by six points or fewer, but their first and only regular season matchup of this year will take place Thursday at 9 p.m. in Champaign. Sitting in third and fourth place in the conference standings, respectively, No. 15 Illinois hosts No. 22 Ohio State in what will be the Buckeyes’ first game against a ranked opponent in nearly a month.

#15 Illinois (19-7, 12-4 B1G) State Farm Center 9 p.m. FS1

Led by third-year star center Kofi Cockburn, the reigning Big Ten Tournament champions are 3-0 against Wisconsin and Michigan State this season, but have also suffered losses to Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers in conference play. The Illini beat Tom Izzo’s Spartans for the second time just this past Saturday, but suffered a double-digit upset defeat to Rutgers one game before that and have dropped two of their last four contests.

“There’s a lot of really good teams in our league,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said at a press conference Wednesday. “A lot of really good teams. And they’re right there for sure.”

Ohio State, which is playing its third game in just six days, is coming off an overtime win over Indiana but has lost three of its last seven games and has a 4-5 record on the road this year. A win over Illinois would be the Buckeyes’ best since topping Wisconsin by an 18-point margin back on Dec. 11, and would give Ohio State a fifth Quadrant 1 win this year.

What to Watch For

Big Ten standings implications

Ohio State sits just one place below Illinois at fourth place in the Big Ten, and an upset loss for the Illini on Thursday would even both teams’ conference loss totals to five on the year. No team in the Big Ten has fewer than four losses in Big Ten play this season, so every Ohio State win the rest of the way could help it climb up the ladder rung by rung, and Illinois might be the toughest opponent the Buckeyes play the rest of the way.

Can Buckeyes avoid second half cold spell?

For the past two games in a row, Ohio State has struggled to hit shots for long swaths of the second half, which has cost the Buckeyes to varying degrees. After a close first half against Iowa, Ohio State didn’t hit a field goal for nearly eight minutes in the second half, eventually leading to a double-digit loss. Ohio State eked out an overtime win over Indiana, but not before surrendering an 11-point second half lead as the Buckeyes couldn’t hit a shot for nearly five minutes of game time. A similar stretch might be more difficult to overcome against the Illini on the road Thursday.

Disparity in free-throw attempts

Due in large part to Cockburn’s size down low, Illinois often gets to the free-throw line considerably more than its opponent. Illinois has shot more free throws than its adversary in six of its last seven games, and the Fighting Illini are coming off a game in which they went 17-for-23 from the line against Michigan State. The Buckeyes sent Iowa to the line 21 times in Saturday’s home loss, and Indiana got there a whopping 27 times against the Buckeyes on Monday. Ohio State allowed Zach Edey and company to shoot 26 free throws in its matchup with Purdue, which might be a good frame of reference given Cockburn’s stature.

Three Important Buckeyes

E.J. Liddell

Liddell has averaged just 15.7 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting in the past three games, and he set new low marks for single-game home shooting percentages in each of his past two efforts. Liddell still made crucial plays on both ends of the court in Monday’s overtime win over Indiana, but his past few outings have been far from his best of the season. Liddell dropped 26 points in his last trip to Champaign, though, and is likely to put his best foot forward playing in his home state. (Update: Ohio State announced Thursday afternoon that Liddell is questionable to play against Illinois due to a battle with the flu.)

Malaki Branham

Branham’s star continues to burn brighter as the season rolls along, and the freshman is fresh off a 27-point performance against Indiana that marked his second-highest single-game scoring total this year. Branham also dished out the game-tying assist at the end of regulation to further prove the multi-faceted dimensions of his talent, and is now on quite the tear in Ohio State’s past few games. Branham has averaged 24.5 points on 69.2 percent shooting from the field in the Buckeyes’ last two contests alone, and will be gunning for a third straight 20-point game on Thursday.

Eugene Brown

Now a regular starter for Ohio State, Brown gave the Buckeyes a big lift Monday with a 10-point outing that served as his highest-scoring performance to date against a Big Ten opponent. Brown had scored no more than four points in his three previous starts, and even though his defensive versatility is what makes him an asset, the Buckeyes are in need of additional offense wherever they can get it.

Three Important Illini

Player Position Height Weight Stats
TRENT FRAZIER G 6-2 175 12.4 PPG, 4.0 APG
ALFONSO PLUMMER G 6-1 180 14.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG
DA'MONTE WILLIAMS G 6-3 215 3.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG
JACOB GRANDISON G 6-6 210 10.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG
KOFI COCKBURN C 7-0 285 21.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG

Kofi Cockburn

The Big Ten’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer is also the only player in the conference averaging a double-double, as Cockburn is putting up monster numbers with 21.7 points and 11.2 boards per game this season.

The 7-foot force is coming off of his 12th 20-point performance of the season, a 27-point effort in a win over Michigan State, and Cockburn is shooting better than 60 percent from the field this season. Only three times all season has Cockburn shot under 50 percent for a game, and he’s shooting almost 10 percent better from the free-throw line (65.2) than he did a season ago. Cockburn never scored more than 16 points in any of his three meetings with the Buckeyes last season, but he’ll be a constant threat whenever he’s on the court Thursday.

“He’s a tremendous player and he’s a tremendous finisher around the basket; 2-point finisher, rim-runner, all those things,” Holtmann said. “He creates so many help situations. We’ve probably done a good job with some of our positioning against him, you’re trying to keep a body on him as much as possible. All in all, he’s gonna get some of his and you’re trying as much as possible just to make him work.”

Alfonso Plummer

A first-year member of the Illinois program after playing the previous two seasons at Utah, Plummer is the Illini’s second-leading scorer with an average of 14.7 points per game on 42.7 percent shooting. Plummer’s average of 7.3 3-point attempts per game are the most on the team, and he’s hit 39.2 percent of his shots from deep. The 6-foot-1 guard doesn’t create a whole lot of shots for others, averaging just 1.1 assists per game, but his own scoring ability is dangerous enough as is.

Trent Frazier

A fixture in the Fighting Illini lineup for nearly five full seasons, Frazier leads Illinois with an average of four assists per game and is also its third-leading scorer with 12.4 points per game. Although he’s averaging just eight points per game on 31.3 percent shooting in his last four appearances, Frazier has scored at least 20 points on four occasions this season and has dished out at least five assists in four of the last six games.

“He’s started since he got there. He’s really as key to them as anything,” Holtmann said. “Plummer’s really important as well, I think that was a really impactful transfer for them. They can really shoot it across the board, they’re very old and obviously Kofi anchors things.”

How It Plays Out

Line: Illinois -6, O/U 140

This will be the best version of Cockburn Ohio State has seen, and the 7-footer plays a more integral role for Illinois than ever before. That, in conjunction with the Illini’s stable of veteran guards to surround the big man – not to mention reigning Big Ten sixth man of the year Andre Curbelo – will be tough to overcome for the Buckeyes, who enter as the underdog in this one.

Prediction: Illinois 74, Ohio State 68

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