Illinois aims to complete multiple goals, finishes off regular season at Ohio State

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Cameron Krasucki

Giorgi Bezhanishvili blocks a shot in Illinois’ game against Nebraska on March 6.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Illinois faces Ohio State on Saturday, it will wrap up the Big Ten regular season with an underrated feat — the Illini will have played all 20 Big Ten games, avoiding any Covid-related cancellations coming from its own program.

In an uncertain year, it speaks volumes to the character of Illinois’ players that they took all the right steps to avoid any cancellations. They completed 26 of 27 games, with the lone cancellation coming from UT-Martin in non-conference play. Junior forward Giorgi Bezhanisvhili had “no doubt” they could complete that challenge.

“There is always a chance for us to catch COVID and test positive,” Bezhanishvili said. “But, I feel like our guys were just so committed to each other, to ourselves, to the team, to not be the first guy to catch Covid and stop us from our goals. Guys have been awesome.”

Illinois isn’t the only team that will play 20 Big Ten contests. Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan State and Minnesota will also complete 20. The Big Ten finished second amongst all conferences in college basketball in games finished, and first among the Power-5 conferences. Brad Underwood believes this is a testament to the league.

“Kudos to the league office for putting a plan together that worked and that was safe,” Underwood said. “The everyday testing was fabolous and a pain in the butt at times, but it was mandatory. Everybody went through and overall, great job by everybody involved.”

Saturday’s game will also provide Illinois with the chance to clinch another impressive feat — a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While nothing is set in stone, a win at No. 7 Ohio State, coming off of a win against No. 2 Michigan, would give Illinois a cushion for that last one seed.

The Illini may be without their star guard Ayo Dosunmu once again. While he has made progress in his recovery, Underwood said he is still “day-to-day.” With or without Dosunmu, the team will have to bring the same defensive intensity they had against Michigan. The Illini held the Wolverines’ seventh-ranked offense to a season-low 34% from the field.

The Buckeyes are no offensive slouches themselves. They possess the fourth most efficient offense, led by Belleville native E.J. Liddell, who went off for 26 points in the first matchup.

“We gotta challenge (him). He’s a good player,” Underwood said. “He’s a really talented kid. He’s going to score 16-20 because of his talent. We just can’t give him the easy baskets. He made four threes in the first game against us, and we gotta do a better job of contesting that.”

Slowing down Liddell will be key if Illinois wants to pick up a win in Columbus and make another statement to the country that they belong on that top seed line. The Buckeyes are the only team ranked in the top six of the Big Ten that the Illini have not beaten this season.

The game is scheduled to tip off at 3 p.m. Central Time and can be watched on ESPN.

@BrandonSimberg

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