The Illinois Fighting Illini were defeated by the #14 Ohio State Buckeyes, 68-55, at Value City Arena on Sunday.
This was a big game for both the Illini and the Buckeyes. For the Buckeyes, a win would have gave them a shot for a piece of the Big Ten regular season title. However, the Indiana Hoosiers beat the Michigan Wolverines and locked up the conference title for themselves.
For Illinois, a win would have locked them in the Big Ten conference tournament as the 7th-seed. They will be the 8th-seed in the conference tournament due to tiebreakers with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Purdue Boilermakers. Purdue edged out both the Illini and the Gophers.
Illinois and Minnesota are tied head-to-head this season, but it’s their record against the first-place Indiana that will give Illinois the 8th spot. If Michigan or Michigan State were named the top team in the conference, then Minnesota would be the 8th-seed. Either way, Illinois and Minnesota will play against each other in the first round of their conference tournament.
Both Illinois and Ohio State came out to play for the last game of the regular season. The game was a stalemate during the first 13 minutes. However, OSU finished the first half on a 12-2 run.
“The end of the first half, they made a run on us and got a nice little lead going into halftime,” said Brandon Paul after the game. “That definitely boosted their confidence. Then we didn’t find ways to stop them down the stretch.”
The Illini would pulled to within seven points in the second half off back-to-back threes, but the Buckeyes pulled away in the end.
Paul scored 21 points in the game which did not just lead the team, but led all scorers. He went 6-of-14 from the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. He also went a perfect 6-of-6 from the foul line. However, he would foul out of the game in the second half.
Another big bench player for Illinois was Myke Henry. He only scored seven points, but led the team in rebounds with eight on Sunday. Six of his eight rebounds came off the offensive boards.
The biggest players for the Buckeyes on Sunday were DeShaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
All three players scored double-digits for the Buckeyes. Thomas led the team with 19 points, Craft was second with 14 points, and Smith Jr. was third with ten.
Even though he was second in scoring, Craft was an “assist machine” for Ohio State. He finished the game with a team-high six assists.
Sunday’s game could have been a redemption game for the Fighting Illini. They were coming into the game after being upset by the Iowa Hawkeyes and really needed a “resume booster.”
Right now, Illinois is a projected 9th-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The bright spot for them is that eight out of their eleven losses have come against the RPI Top 50. They also have five wins against the RPI Top 50. This loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes will not hurt the Fighting Illini’s tournament chances, but it could affect their seeding.
Are the Illini safe? Yes and no. They will need to win at least one game in the Big Ten conference tournament. The biggest thing that will hurt the Illini will be unexpected conference tournament winners. If a team that shouldn’t be in the tournament win their respective conference tournament, then that will hurt Illinois’ tournament chances.
The Illinois Fighting Illini finish the regular season with an overall record of 21-11 and a conference record of 8-10.
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