Illinois men’s basketball back home for Ohio State

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Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn looks for an opening in Nebraska’s defense during the Illini’s 78-67 loss to the Huskers at State Farm Center on Saturday, January 16.

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

When they meet the Buckeyes at State Farm Center on Thursday night, the Illini will attempt to do something they haven’t done since March of last year — win back-to-back Big Ten games.

Looking to capitalize on its first road win of the year, Illinois (10-10, 2-5) will face Ohio State (13-8, 5-3) in a rematch of an early conference battle that was decided by two points when the teams last met in Columbus, Ohio. Illinois didn’t come away with a happy result back at the beginning of January, but having studied film of the first matchup, junior captain Malcolm Hill pinpointed what held the Illini back.

“We lost by two points, and they made like a hundred free throws,” Hill said. “If we foul a lot less, we’ll have a better chance of winning.”

They may not have reached triple digits, but the Buckeyes did get to the charity stripe 39 times — 24 more attempts than Illinois allows on average — in last month’s matchup. The Illini got to the line 11 times in Columbus, but have attempted at least 20 free throws in all but one game since. Hill’s recent aggressiveness has been key in that stretch.

“That’s just part of our game,” Hill said. “The more I put pressure on the run, the easier it is to free up my jump shot later in the game.”

Hill sunk 13 free throws in the win over Minnesota and has eclipsed 20 points in three of his last four games — even after a slow start, he sits at second in the Big Ten in scoring. The multi-faceted forward is also a top-20 rebounder in the conference and has benefitted from seeing more minutes at the three in recent games.

The steady play of big men Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan have allowed Hill to stray away from matching up with bigger players.

With center Mike Thorne Jr. remaining a game-time decision because of knee soreness, the Finke-Morgan duo may prove to be crucial against an Ohio State team that can be imposing in the paint.

Coming off the best rebounding performance by an Illini since 2011, Finke is looking forward to seeing more minutes with another big alongside him.

“Four is probably my natural position, especially offensively,” Finke said. “Whenever I’m able to do that, I love playing there. Mav’s stepped up his game also — I think we complement each other well.”

The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in blocked shots and swatted nine Illini attempts last month — center Daniel Giddens accounted for five of those blocks and is third in the Big Ten with two rejections per game. Ohio State is third in the conference in rebounding, which Illinois has struggled with all season.

Looking at the box score of these teams’ first meeting, it’s difficult to find many positives for the Illini. They were out rebounded 42-33. Buckeyes leading scorer Marc Loving hung 27 points. Hill and Kendrick Nunn were held to 9-of-28 from the floor.

And yet, Illinois lost by one basket on the road.

“It’s tough in the Big Ten,” Morgan, an Ohio native said. “Anybody can literally beat anybody in this conference. You just have to keep it rolling, and that’s what we’ve gotta do (Thursday). We owe Ohio State.”

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