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Ohio State vs. Illinois Big Ten Championship Preview

The Buckeyes will play in a conference-record tenth championship game on Sunday afternoon. Here's a preview of the matchup against Illinois, who is one of the hottest teams in the nation.

It's only fitting that the best college basketball league in the country this year would conclude this way.

Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa became the first combination of AP Top-10 teams to all qualify for the semifinals of a conference tournament. And after two fantastic semifinal games on Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes and Fighting Illini will play for a conference title.

In a year that's been filled with uncertainty and uneasiness, Ohio State (21-8) head coach Chris Holtmann has preached to his team to enjoy every moment of this journey that they can. While there have been some occasionally frustrating moments, the Buckeyes play with such joy and passion. It's not hard to understand how they got to this point of the season, but the journey here hasn't been easy.

I'm not sure Buckeye fans would have believed that their team would be competing for a conference title after watching the first seven games of the year, or even after starting conference play with a 2-3 record. But after winning 10 of 11 games through January and February - including a school-record four consecutive road wins against top-15 ranked teams - the Buckeyes certainly showed they are capable of playing with championship pedigree and effort.

The end-of-season slump against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois was far from the note Ohio State wanted to enter this tournament on, but only one of those losses wasn't competitive. Give them credit - they never panicked and have won three very tight games to qualify for Sunday's title tilt.

And now they're on the doorstep of glory. 

Winning the Big Ten title means a great deal to the schools, fans, alumni and players in this league. Considering the challenge that this season presented with the pandemic and the quality of competition in the league, playing in the final conference game of the season is worth celebrating.

But the Buckeyes don't want their story to end just yet. 

Ohio State's opponent might just be the best team in the country ... although that distinction seems to be a moving target between a handful of programs these days.

Illinois (22-6) is extraordinarily talented. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are legitimate NBA talent and they are surrounded by a fabulous supporting cast. Freshman guard Andre Curbelo has had a terrific season and has played his best basketball the last four weeks. Senior guard Trent Frazier is averaging double-digits this year as well.

Illinois handled Rutgers in the only blowout win of the tournament, beating the Scarlet Knights 90-68 in the quarterfinals on Friday. They followed that with a semifinal win over National Player of the Year front-runner Luka Garza and the Iowa Hawkeyes, 82-71.

While Illinois has a proud basketball tradition, they have not been among the league's best teams in recent years. Their semifinal appearance on Saturday was actually their first since 2010.

With Saturday's championship final set, Illinois is looking to win its first title since 2005. They also won the championship back in 2003, but have not played for the crown since 2008 when they lost to Wisconsin. This will be Illinois' seventh Big Ten title game appearance.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have won more Big Ten Tournament games (34) than any other school in the league over the course of the 23 tournaments. Ohio State has played in more Big Ten Championship games than anyone too, with Sunday marking their tenth trip to the final. They previously won the tournament in 2013, 2011, 2010, 2007 and 2002 while finishing runner-up in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012.

The only previous meeting between the two programs for a Big Ten championship came in 2003, with Illinois claiming a 72-59 victory. In total, they've split the four all-time meetings in Big Ten Tournament play.

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The two teams also split their regular season meetings this year, each winning on the road. The Buckeyes won in Champaign, 87-81 on Jan. 16, but the Illini returned the favor with a regular-season finale win in Columbus. The Scarlet and Gray led that game 68-64, but missed the last 10 shots they took and dropped the contest, 73-68.

When the Big Ten Tournament is traditionally held in Indianapolis, the league plays over at Bankers Life Fieldhouse where the Indiana Pacers play. But with the late switch from Chicago to Indy and the women's tournament already scheduled in that venue, the conference tournament was moved to Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Final Four will also be held in a few weeks.

Perhaps Ohio State can channel some of the positive energy it's mustered inside this building each of the last four December's, where they've won a conference football championship.

Can Chris Holtmann's team win a fourth game in four days?

Tipoff on Sunday is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and the game will be televised live on CBS.

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