Game Preview: No. 21 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Illinois

Here is an inside look at the Buckeyes and the Fighting Illini as they prepare for a conference battle on Saturday in Champaign.
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Ohio State heads back on the road after a crucial home win vs. Northwestern on Wednesday. The Buckeyes (10-3) will look to extend their win streak to three games as they take on the Fighting Illini (9-4) Saturday afternoon before heading back home to host Purdue on Tuesday.

Location: Champaign, Illinois
Game Time: 12:00 PM ET
TV Coverage: FOX
Radio Coverage: 97.1 The Fan

This is Ohio State's first game in Champaign in quite a while - 1,477 days as a matter of fact. The Buckeyes haven't played at Illinois in four years

The win against the Wildcats on Wednesday was awfully impressive for Ohio State. The Buckeyes were in control for most of the game, but Northwestern cut the Ohio State lead down to just one point with four minutes remaining. The Bucks closed on a 14-5 run to finish off the Wildcats. 

It was a pleasant change from Ohio State’s first meeting with Northwestern in late December. In that game, Northwestern closed on a 14-6 run, defeating Ohio State by a score of 71-70. Wednesday’s 81-71 OSU victory without key players C.J. Walker and Jimmy Sotos was certainly a huge one for the Buckeyes. It led Chris Holtmann to say he's never been prouder of his team all season (video above).

OHIO STATE OVERVIEW

Ohio State is off to an excellent 10-3 start and a win Saturday against an elite Illinois team would be a big-time statement for the Buckeyes.

The Buckeyes came out of the gate scorching hot this season with a 6-0 record in non-conference play. Included in that non-conference slate were impressive wins over Notre Dame from the ACC and UCLA from the Pac-12.

Ohio State had an up-and-down start to Big Ten play. After losing on the road at Purdue, the Buckeyes delivered an impressive win over a ranked Rutgers team, 80-68. The brutal Northwestern loss was then followed by a blowout win over Nebraska, 90-54. It was Ohio State's biggest win in conference play in 30 years.

The Buckeyes were then dominated by a ranked Minnesota team, 77-60. But they've rebounded in a big way over the past two games. OSU completed the regular season sweep of Rutgers, winning a top-25 road game in conference for just the second time in the Chris Holtmann era. Then they followed up with the impressive win over Northwestern while missing their top two point guards.

Junior guard Justin Ahrens was key for the Bucks on Wednesday. He connected on 4-of-5 triples and lit the fire for Ohio State’s huge end of game run. The timely hot shooting from Ahrens is something Buckeye fans have learned all about over his time donning the Scarlet & Gray.

Junior guard Duane Washington Jr. has been outstanding for the Buckeyes throughout their past two wins. He has chipped in 40 points over 70 minutes played.

Freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. is showing he is more than ready for the big stage. He graduated early from Garfield Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio to enroll early at Ohio State in December. An early fan-favorite and an impressive shot maker from distance, Johnson Jr. scored six points in 11 minutes played vs. Northwestern on Wednesday.

ILLINOIS OVERVIEW

Illinois is off to a start, that for most teams, would be excellent. The Fighting Illini have a 9-4 record. Currently sitting at #14 in the country, the respect for Illinois is still high. Multiple experts around the country have actually been disappointed in Illinois so far this season.

The expectations coming in were sky-high for this team. In the second AP Poll of the season, Illinois was ranked fifth in the nation.

The Fighting Illini opened the season with blowout wins over North Carolina A&T and Chicago State. The Ohio Bobcats nearly pulled a shocking upset in Champaign, but eventually fell to Illinois, 77-75.

Illinois then went on the road against a fantastic Baylor team and the Bears took care of business, 82-69. But they quickly righted things with a great 83-68 win at Duke.

An up-and-down stretch followed for the Illini. First a loss to Missouri, then a blowout win over Minnesota, and then a close loss to Rutgers.

Illinois finally got things going in the right direction in late December and early January. Four straight wins over Penn State, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern before eventually dropping a game to Maryland this past Sunday brings the Illini to Saturday's game against Ohio State.

Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu is one of the best players in the country. He was named to the Wooden Award Watch List, the Naismith Trophy Watch List and was Unanimous to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team. This season, Dosunmu is averaging 22.4 points per game and shooting 49.8% from the field.

Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn is another force on the Illinois roster. The big man from Kingston, Jamaica was also named to the Wooden Award Watch List, Naismith Trophy Watch List and Preseason All-Big Ten Team. Last season, Cockburn was voted the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the coaches and the media. The 7-footer is averaging 17.3 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game this season.

Senior guard Trent Frazier is a key veteran presence for the Fighting Illini. A team with young talent always needs a leader like Frazier. He has played at least 26.3 minutes per game in all four years of his college career. He averaged 13.7 points per game his sophomore season and is only averaging 8.4 points per game this season. Illinois going deep in March Madness this year could depend on Frazier getting his point totals back up in the teens.

OHIO STATE KEYS

Here are three keys for the Buckeyes to stay hot against a great Illinois team:

1. Continued Production from Zed Key – Ohio State’s freshman big man has been a beast down low this season. In Ohio State’s three losses, Key has only scored an average of 4.0 points per game and 1.7 rebounds per game. In the ten Ohio State wins, Key has averaged 7.8 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. That’s a noticeable difference, and clearly Ohio State is better when Key is producing points and rebounds in a big way.

2. E.J. Liddell Gets Back on TrackThe sophomore forward has been Ohio State’s best player for most of this season. In a win against Northwestern on Wednesday, Liddell scored only six points (all from the free throw line), but also chipped in ten crucial rebounds. If Ohio State wants to pull off the upset over Illinois on Saturday, the Buckeyes will need their talented young star to get back on track in the scoring column.

3. Justice Sueing Stays Hot – The Cal-transfer has averaged 10.8 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game in 2020-21, but his versatility has proven critical for Chris Holtmann. Sueing has taken over at point guard while C.J. Walker and Jimmy Sotos are out with injuries.

After a short slump in late December, Sueing has gotten back on track in the past two games. Against Rutgers, he had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Against Northwestern, he had 13 points and seven rebounds. Throughout his slump, Sueing’s minutes dropped into the teens, but since getting hot, he has been playing 24-34 minutes per game. The 6-7 veteran presence from Honolulu, Hawai’i must remain hot for the Buckeyes to defeat the Fighting Illini.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn vs. Ohio State's Kyle Young – This matchup between big men could be key in deciding the winner of this game. A Big Ten battle between two great teams looking to make a deep run in March could be decided down low. Cockburn is a 7-footer and an absolute force in the paint. Young is only 6-foot-8, and while this is a height mismatch, you wouldn't know it by the way Kyle Young plays.

Ohio State fans have gotten accustomed to Kyle Young battling big men that are much bigger than he is in size, game-in and game-out. Young is never shy and always goes right at the opposition without hesitation. He is coming off a great game against Northwestern, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds. The senior from Canton, Ohio went 5-for-5 from the field and is 11-for-14 from the field over the two-game Buckeye win streak.

If Ohio State wants to pull the upset over Illinois, getting Cockburn in early foul trouble and containing the 7-foot phenom, is immensely important.

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Chris Holtmann Postgame Comments After Ohio State Beat Northwestern

Jimmy Sotos Will Not Play Against Northwestern

Ohio State Senior C.J. Walker to Miss Time With Torn Ligaments in Right Hand

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