Busting Brackets

Ohio State vs. Illinois: 2021 Big Ten Championship game preview, TV schedule

Mar 6, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) dribbles the ball while defended by Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 6, 2021; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) dribbles the ball while defended by Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2021 Big Ten Championship will finally be determined on Sunday between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Illinois Fighting Illini.

TV schedule: Sunday, March 14, 3:30 pm ET. CBS

Arena: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana

After an incredibly entertaining Big Ten Tournament, the conference’s champion will be crowned on Sunday afternoon, with the fifth-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes and second-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini clashing in a rematch of the Big Ten regular season finale.

The Buckeyes (21-8) paved their path to the title game courtesy of narrow wins over Minnesota, Purdue, and now Michigan, having narrowly escaped the Wolverines in the Big Ten semifinals, 68-67.  After trailing by a point at halftime, Ohio State turned on the gas in the second stanza, racing out to a lead as large as 13 with four minutes left – before another cold spell, something that has plagued the Buckeyes throughout the tournament, struck, allowing the Wolverines to end the game on a 17-5 run – before Michigan missed a game-winning shot in the closing seconds.

Playing without Kyle Young – who went down in the win over Purdue with a concussion after pouring in 18 points – the Buckeyes desperately needed to find the offense to keep up with a Michigan squad that had averaged 1.25 points per possession against Maryland, and received that offense in the form of Duane Washington Jr. and EJ Liddell.  The duo combined for 40 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists – and was the catalyst for Ohio State averaging 1.11 points per possession.

Illinois (22-6), meanwhile, soared past Iowa in the second tilt of the Big Ten semifinals, taking a 15-14 lead six minutes into the game and never looked back in an 82-71 rout.  The Hawkeyes threatened the Fighting Illini several times throughout the game, trimming the lead to single-digits and as low as five with under four minutes to play – but turnovers, foul trouble for Luka Garza, and the tandem of Ayo Dosumnu and Kofi Cockburn were too much for Iowa to handle.

Dosunmu and Cockburn were, predictably, electric for the Illini, combining for 44 points on 18-33 shooting to go with 15 rebounds and 10 assists.  The Illini also earned a near-perfect game from Andre Curbelo off the bench, with the freshman registering 12 points on a 6-8 clip, along with seven boards, three assists, and three steals.  Illinois was abysmal from long range, shooting just 3-15 – but decimated the Hawkeyes’ interior defense, going 29-51 (56.9%) inside the perimeter.

These two squads met twice in the regular season, with both teams winning on the opposition’s floor – the Buckeyes claimed an 87-81 victory back on January 16th, while the Illini got revenge in the regular season finale just last week, 73-68.  Each win showcased the winning team’s strengths – Ohio State dominated the first game from beyond the arc (11-21) and in fast break points (22-6), while Illinois throttled the Buckeyes in the second tilt in points in the paint (42-32) and getting to the free-throw line (15-24 for Illinois to 7-11 for OSU).

Most of those themes held true in both teams’ semifinal matchups, and well very much be the keys for both squads in the championship game.  The Buckeyes were a blistering 12-22 from beyond the arc against Michigan, while struggling mightily inside (12-35).  And, despite winning, Ohio State was not necessarily successful in many other key areas – they were outscored in points off turnovers (9-3), second-chance points (17-10), fast break points (11-5), and points in the paint (28-24).

That is extremely concerning for the Buckeyes, particularly considering that the Illini thrived in all of those categories against the Hawkeyes – including double-digit margins in points off turnovers (19-6), fast break points (19-9), and – most glaringly – points in the paint (52-24).  If Ohio State hopes to stand a chance, they must shut down the trio of Dosunmu, Cockburn, and Curbelo.  The three combined for 50 of Illinois’ 73 points in the last meeting, and – coincidentally – are the three coming off double-digit performances against Iowa.

The Buckeyes should not be too stranded offensively with Kyle Young still out of the lineup, considering the senior recorded just two points in the previous tilt – but his height will be greatly missed on the defensive end against the 7-foot Cockburn.  With Cockburn coming off an 11-17 shooting display against the Hawkeyes, in a game where the Illini dismantled Iowa in the key, the Buckeyes must fight to contain the big man inside – but without Young, one of Ohio State’s tallest players at 6-8, inside, that is much easier said than done.

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On the other end, the Illini must shut down Washington Jr. and Liddell – the pair combined for 71 of Ohio State’s 155 total points in both regular season meetings.  If Cockburn is able to be free and thrive inside, however, then locking those two may not matter – especially considering the Buckeyes struggled to contain Michigan’s big man in Hunter Dickinson, who shot 9-14 to finish with 21 points.

Prediction: Illinois 77 – Ohio State 70