After four years, Ohio State returns to Illinois for Big Ten game
A lot has happened since the last time the Ohio State men's basketball team played on Illinois’ home court.
Barack Obama was still president of the United States. Thad Matta was in what would be his final season coaching the Buckeyes. Chris Holtmann was at Butler, Brad Underwood was at Oklahoma State and the Fighting Illini gave an Ohio State team led by JaQuan Lyle’s 26 points a 75-70 loss to open Big Ten play.
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That was New Year’s Day, 2017. More than four years later, an entirely new Ohio State roster with Holtmann at the helm will face an entirely new Illinois roster with Underwood in charge for Saturday’s showdown between two top 25 teams trying to remain near the top of the Big Ten standings.
It has been 1,476 days since that meeting in Champaign, thanks to the quirks of an unbalanced league schedule, as well as Illinois' decision to play the Buckeyes at Chicago's United Center during the 2018-19 season, a game OSU won 77-67 behind Keyshawn Woods' 18 points.
As they pursue a third straight win, the No. 21 Buckeyes are focusing mostly inward and not the unusual circumstances while preparing for a Final Four contender in No. 14 Illinois because of a quick turnaround after Wednesday's home win against Northwestern.
“All of the stuff around, I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant but really it comes down to who you’re playing and the quality of the opponent, which in this case is obviously a really, really good team, and then preparing your team to play as well as you can,” Holtmann said. “There might be some fans there, but I think all of the other stuff, it gets boiled down to how both teams play on that given day.”
After fending off the Wildcats, Holtmann said he was as proud of his team as he had been all season for earning a win despite being without primary point guard CJ Walker (torn ligaments in his right hand) and replacement Jimmy Sotos (right shoulder injury). Walker will miss his third straight game Saturday while Sotos will again be a game-day decision, per Holtmann.
Despite being short-handed, the Buckeyes found a way against Northwestern.
“This is a situation that a lot of teams are going through this season,” junior swingman Justin Ahrens said after the win. “For us, everybody on the team has bought in in practice and has been working their butt off and that’s why it shows. When your number is called, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
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Such a mentality is essential with a short turnaround between games. Illinois has been off since a 65-64 home loss to Maryland last Sunday.
“When you have a (quick) turnaround for one of the best teams in the country, your focus has to be on what you do well and at the same time trying to take away some of their strengths,” Holtmann said. “There’s no question we’re going to be challenged in ways quite honestly we haven’t been challenged all year with some of the things Illinois does. We need to keep the focus on us continuing to improve.”
Saturday's game won't be the first for Holtmann at the State Farm Center. In a November 2012 game while he was coaching at Gardner Webb, his Runnin’ Bulldogs took a 63-62 loss there on an Illinois three-pointer with four seconds remaining.
That was during Holtmann’s last season at Gardner Webb. Now, two programs and more than eight years later, he’ll return.
“I know obviously it’s a place that’s really passionate about hoops,” he said.