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2/24 Big Ten Preview: Ohio State Travels to Illinois

Illinois looks to stay in the running for the Big Ten crown, while a struggling Indiana takes on Maryland

EJ Liddell and Kofi Cockburn go for a loose ball
EJ Liddell and Kofi Cockburn go for a loose ball
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Thursday brings a Big Ten doubleheader to FS1, containing the only ranked matchup of the night in OSU-Illinois, and a must-win opportunity for Indiana at home against Maryland.

Game of the Night:

-No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes at No. 15 Illinois Fighting Illini

  • Time/TV: 9:00 PM ET FS1
  • Line: Illinois -5 (KenPom)

Illinois comes into tonight’s game against Ohio State just a half game out of first place in the Big Ten and the opportunity to move back into a tie with Purdue at the top with a win. Illinois has faltered a bit recently, dropping two of their last four games. However, the Illini got back on track in their latest game against Michigan State, winning 79-74 on the back of 51 combined points from Kofi Cockburn and Jacob Grandison

But it wasn’t exactly a comforting final few minutes for Illini fans. They were up 67-54 before allowing the Spartans to go on a 10-0 run and cut the lead to three. While Illinois eventually hung on to win, this was all too familiar territory; they nearly blew a 16-point halftime lead in their win against Northwestern earlier this month.

As for Ohio State, they come off an OT win against Indiana, in which they trailed by four with under a minute to play in regulation. After trailing, OSU would eventually tie the ballgame on a defensive lapse that left EJ Liddell wide open right under the basket in the final seconds. The Buckeyes outscored the Hoosiers 17-6 in OT in a finish that left many Hoosiers fans scratching their heads.

Despite this comeback win, Ohio State enters tonight’s game on shaky footing, with their latest win pushing them to 4-3 in their last seven games, and 10-5 overall in the Big Ten. They are hanging on to a top four spot in the conference—which brings an extremely valuable double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. While the Buckeyes are likely out of the running for a regular-season crown, the tilt against Illinois is a valuable opportunity to gain an excellent road win and improve their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

This is the first and only meeting between these two teams this year. I’ll look to see if the Buckeyes have the defensive abilities inside to match up with Illini big man Kofi Cockburn. It will be interesting to see if head coach Chris Holtmann decides to deploy Zed Key or EJ Liddell to try and slow down Kofi. The last time these two teams met was last year’s Big Ten Championship game, where Liddell held Kofi to 15 points. Ohio State will need a similar defensive effort if they want to win this game.

Besides the interior matchup, I’m interested to see the backcourt matchup between Illinois’ surplus of guards and Ohio State’s defense—headed by Jamari Wheeler who ranks 6th in the Big Ten in Steal Percentage at 3.03, per KenPom. Additionally, I’m curious to follow Malakhi Branham, who comes off a 27-point performance against Indiana.

  • Prediction: Ohio State wins, 72-70.

The Rest:

-Maryland Terrapins at Indiana Hoosiers

  • Time/TV: 7:00 PM ET (FS1)
  • Line: Indiana -6 (KenPom)

Indiana basketball: all aboard the struggle bus. The Hoosiers have stumbled so hard in February that I wrote an entire piece on them, detailing why they have had such a rough month. The long and short of it is, their schedule got loads more difficult—the average KenPom ranking of Big Ten teams on their five-game losing streak was 43 spots higher than the rest of their Big Ten schedule, in which they went 7-4.

Long term, I don’t think there’s any need to panic for Hoosier fans; this is only a first-year coach playing with leftovers from a previous failed administration. But this year, Indiana has played itself from a surefire NCAA Tournament team, to squarely on the bubble. They need to get back on track, and they need to do it now.

Luckily for the Hoosiers, this home game against Maryland figures to be their easiest matchup since, well, they beat Maryland on January 29. There are few better ways to get things back on track than a home tilt against the third-worst team in the Big Ten who’s playing without an interim head coach. I suppose Nebraska might be easier . . . but you get my point.

For Maryland’s part, they have put together a nice little two-game win streak—albeit against two of the bottom five teams in the standings. But still, the Terps’ have talent on their team, and if Indiana sleepwalks into this game they’re going to be in trouble.

  • Prediction: Indiana wins, 65-61