No. 4 Illinois visits No. 7 Ohio State in key Big Ten battle
Fourth-ranked Illinois can extend its winning streak to four games and hand No. 7 Ohio State its fourth straight loss Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
The Illini (19-6, 15-4 Big Ten) are coming off one the most impressive victories in college basketball this season, 76-53 at No. 2 Michigan on Tuesday despite not having injured national player of the year candidate Ayo Dosunmu.
"I would be challenged to find a better win in college basketball this year -- a better road win anyway," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "To do that without college basketball's best player is a pretty big statement."
Yet, in the landmine that is the Big Ten, another challenge is ahead against the struggling Buckeyes (18-7, 12-7), who were ranked as high as fourth before losing to Michigan, Michigan State and No. 5 Iowa.
"You don't get very long to enjoy it," Underwood said after the Michigan game. "You've got Ohio State, who beat us the first time, coming up."
Ohio State defeated the Illini 87-81 on Jan. 16 behind 26 points by Illinois native E.J. Liddell.
The Buckeyes haven't played since a 73-57 home loss to Iowa on Sunday, and Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said a break from games was needed.
"Our whole team needs rest and we've got to get healthy," he said. "We had basically a third of our team that wasn't able to really practice much at all last week, or at least very limited. We've got to get, as much as we can, healthy and get back to practicing and then move forward and recognize and own those things we've got to get done better collectively."
Foremost is a return to form by senior forward Kyle Young, who missed the Michigan State game because of a concussion and was not at his best during the Iowa game.
"He wasn't the same," Holtmann said. "Kyle's such a tremendous kid and absolute warrior. Whether it was the week off or not being in the same rhythm ... he was different. What's to explain for that exactly, I'm not sure."
He will play in the regular-season finale, but it is unclear if Dosunmu, who averages 21.0 points and 6.3 rebounds, will be available for the Illini. He sustained a broken nose and other facial injuries against Michigan State on Feb. 23, and Underwood said Tuesday he is still in concussion protocol.
In Dosunmu's absence against the Wolverines, Trent Frazier had 22 points; Andre Curbelo added 17 points and six rebounds and Kofi Cockburn had 12 points and seven rebounds.
"I don't think there's a silver lining in losing the best player in college basketball," Underwood said. "The one thing it's done is change some roles. Guys have gotten a lot of minutes. Guys have been put in some different spots. I gained some confidence in some guys in different areas.
"We've earned the right to have that confidence. Anytime you play as hard as we play, practice as hard as we practice, that naturally comes with it, this confidence and comfort."
--Field Level Media
Updated March 4, 2021