Illinois gave OSU good league tuneup
CHICAGO — Keyshawn Woods has twice as much experience in the Big Ten as he does the NCAA Tournament. The graduate transfer from Wake Forest, who is two conference games into his lone season with Ohio State, made one foray into March Madness when the Demon Deacons were ousted in the play-in round in 2017 as a No. 11 seed.
On Wednesday at the United Center, Woods helped the Buckeyes remain unbeaten in the Big Ten by scoring 18 points in a 77-67 win over Illinois. The win made the Buckeyes one of five teams who will take 2-0 records into the new year and the resumption of Big Ten play.
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Overhead, industrial pipes hung and fluorescent lighting shined down as Woods looked back on what the win against the Fighting Illini had felt like.
“To be honest? March Madness,” he said. “Well, the one game I played, but that’s how it’s going to be when we get into March. League games matter and people make sure that they get certain wins they need. That’s how it’s going to be in league play. I think for our freshmen and our younger guys, for them to get a feel on how league play would be, that was a great game to have.”
Illinois is almost certainly going to finish near the bottom of the league. In his second season, coach Brad Underwood has eight new faces, including six freshmen, and dropped to a league-worst five games under .500 entering this weekend. But the way the game unfolded provides insight into just how challenging a league once projected to be among the middle of the pack nationally is shaping up.
Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in The Associated Press poll. Michigan, after losing key pieces from last year’s national runner-up team, is the standard-bearer at No. 5 and boasting blowout wins against ranked opponents Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue by an average of 21.0 points. Michigan State (No. 10) and Wisconsin (12) aren’t far behind, while Iowa (18), Ohio State (19), Maryland (23) and Nebraska (24) gave the conference the most teams in last Monday’s poll.
Even Rutgers, the perennial Big Ten doormat that hasn’t finished anywhere but the cellar in its four seasons as a member, has a road win against the University of Miami and a pair of hard-fought losses to the Spartans and Badgers by a combined 16 points. The conference is ranked just behind the Big 12 for the country's best in the advanced statistics compiled by KenPom.com.
After being pushed by the Illini and needing a second-half comeback to emerge with the win, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said the lessons learned from the challenge will serve the Buckeyes well when Michigan State comes to Value City Arena on Jan. 5 for the first of 18 straight Big Ten games.
“Fans may look at it and say, ‘They’re not running (things)’ — you can’t run anything against these guys (because of their defense),” Holtmann said. “You can’t run offense. It’s a players’ game. I’m happy with this win. I thought we would have to be pretty gritty to get this game and not always perfect, and we certainly weren’t perfect.”
Then, for good measure, he added: “We’ve got a lot to improve on, but I’m not giving a road Big Ten win back.”