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No. 17 Ohio State faces Illinois next in title bid

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The final month of the regular season is here and Ohio State surprisingly finds itself in position to make a run at a Big Ten championship.

For a team that was picked to finish 11th in the preseason, the 17th-ranked Buckeyes have far exceeded expectations in coach Chris Holtmann's first year in Columbus.

Ohio State trailed Big Ten leader Purdue by one game before Purdue's game against Rutgers on Saturday. The Buckeyes have seven games left, and they will face Purdue in a highly anticipated showdown on Wednesday night in West Lafayette, Ind., the only meeting of the season between the two.

But first Ohio State (19-5, 10-1 Big Ten) has to get past Illinois (12-11, 2-8) on Sunday as it wraps up a four-game homestand at Value City Arena.

"It's going to be a unique game in a lot of ways just because of what they force you into," Holtmann said. "No. 3 in the country in turnover percentage, No. 8 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. They get almost twice as many of their misses as we do.

"We're going to have to play very, very well and I think our guys understand that."

The Buckeyes ran off nine consecutive Big Ten wins to reach the halfway point in the conference schedule undefeated before falling at home to Penn State 82-79 last week on a long 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Five days later, Ohio State bounced back from that first Big Ten blemish with a 71-56 victory over Indiana to close out January with an 8-1 record for the month.

February could be challenging. In addition to Purdue, Ohio State has potentially perilous road games remaining at Penn State, Michigan and Indiana.

It might be easy for Ohio State to look past Illinois to its game at Purdue and others down the line. Holtmann doesn't think that's a problem with this team.

All he says he has to do is point to the Fighting Illini's last two games. They edged Indiana 73-71 and then routed Rutgers 91-60 at home on Tuesday for their first two Big Ten victories.

"Look at their last game and see that they were up 40 on Rutgers to see how good they could be," Holtmann said. "The reality is they could be sitting with five or six wins now given how many close games they've had.

"If our guys aren't ready, then that's on them and me and us. That's not to say you can still be ready and lose the game because they present a lot of problems."

Forward Keita Bates-Diop, an Illinois native who is the Buckeyes' leading scorer (19.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.8 per game), insists that it doesn't matter where Illinois resides in the standings.

"(We) just prepare the same way every game," he said. "We prepare for them like they're at the top of the Big Ten."

In addition to holding Rutgers to 60 points, Illinois forced 25 turnovers and scored 37 points off those errors in the rout.

"It's a defensive system unlike anything you've maybe ever seen," Holtmann said. "We'll have to be very sharp in running our set plays, very sharp in running our motion offense. We'll have to be very sharp in our passing and our cutting and our moving. Illinois' defense is incredible in terms of how much they can take you out of stuff."

Illinois is finally starting to feel like it's getting some traction in coach Brad Underwood's first season, even though the standings don't reflect the progress.

The Illini shot the ball well against Rutgers, connecting on 71 percent of their two-pointers, 40.7 percent from 3-point range and 73.7 percent from the free-throw line.

Freshman guard Trent Frazier led the Illini with 17 points, making five 3-pointers. He has scored in double figures in 12 of the last 13 games.

"We continue to want to be aggressive in all those areas," Underwood said. "It's about shooters and passers, to be quite honest. The best teams in the NBA all have multiple guys who can shoot the basketball. The best teams in the NBA are all your top assist teams. That transcends."

To pull off an upset, Illinois will have to reverse its fortunes at Ohio State. The Illini have lost seven in a row in Value City Arena and are 2-13 there.

Updated February 3, 2018

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