No. 15 Illinois men’s basketball controls its own destiny in Big Ten, hosts No. 22 Ohio State


Cameron Krasucki

Guard Jacob Grandison gets introduced for the game against Wisconsin on Feb. 2. The Illini will be at the State Farm Center against Ohio State on Thursday.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

With four games remaining, Illinois controls its own destiny. 

Sitting at four conference losses alongside Wisconsin and Purdue, who have both played an extra game, the No. 15 Illini (12-4, 19-7) play host to the No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes (10-5, 17-7) for Orange Out Night at State Farm Center in Champaign.

“You don’t always get the chance to be able to have your destiny in your hands the way we do,” said graduate student forward Jacob Grandison. “It’s about the little things and not taking any moment for granted. Play hard and come out victorious.”

The Buckeyes enter Thursday’s contest in fourth place in the Big Ten, and they are coming off an 80-69 overtime win over Indiana, a game in which Ohio State trailed by four with under a minute to play before coming back and triumphing by double digits in OT.

Ohio State is led by unanimous preseason junior forward All-Big Ten E.J. Liddell, who is leading the team in points (19.5) and rebounds (7.6) and is the only Buckeye who has started all 24 of their games.

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Liddell averaged 19 points and six rebounds in the Buckeyes’ three games against the Illini, though he scored just 12 points in the Big Ten tournament championship game, which was the last time these two teams have played.

“I think he’s now proven that he can do that as a small forward, as a power forward,” said head coach Brad Underwood of Liddell. “I think his ability with the ball has gotten better – they play him in a lot of different roles – but he’s playing a lot more away from the basket. … Probably on the defensive side he’s grown there as well.” 

Liddell is not the only threat the Buckeyes boast, as freshman guard Malaki Branham has emerged as one of the conference’s top freshmen. The Columbus, Ohio, native averages 11.8 points, the second-highest mark among Big Ten freshmen.

Though Ohio State saw former star guard Duane Washington Jr. depart the program for the NBA, the Buckeyes have instilled their trust in Branham to lead the offense.

“(The Buckeyes) probably have the best freshman in the league, who’s maybe one of the best players in the league when it comes to draft status,” Underwood said. “Branham’s terrific. … He gets downhill. He’s a guy that the ball is in his hands, and they are setting tons of ball-screens with him and playing out of that.”

Underwood also says Branham is “pushing them over the top,” which has kept Ohio State among the top teams in the conference.

“It’s a nice luxury to have when you’ve got guys who are versatile and can do a lot of things,” Underwood said. “He’s just a guy that gets downhill and scores, and they trust him with the ball as a freshman.”

Illinois enters the late-night game off a 79-74 win at Michigan State, though that contest was not always that close. The Illini led by as many as 16 points with nine minutes to play before a late offensive spark from the Spartans nearly saw them pull off the comeback.

As has been the case most of the season, Illinois will be short-handed on Thursday. Redshirt sophomore Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk entered concussion protocol after getting hit in the head against the Spartans, and freshman guard RJ Melendez had to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis earlier in the week.

Despite missing two key players off the bench, the Illini are prepared for the occasion and know what is on the line on Thursday night, with tipoff set for 8 p.m. from Champaign.

“It’s another good team in the Big Ten,” Grandison said. “We just need to be locked in on our scouting reports, be on our Ps and Qs and play hard, do all the little things we talk about.”


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