OSU's postseason aspirations are on the line, somewhat, as they host the Illini (21-5, 12-3), who have already clinched at least a share of the Big Ten championship and will play for an outright title today. A loss would drop the Illini into a three-way tie with Michigan State and Wisconsin for the title.
A win today would help OSU (14-14, 6-9) in its bid for an NIT berth. A loss might mean that the Buckeyes would need to win twice -- including an upset of (guess who?) Illinois -- just to prolong their season.
"There is incentive for both teams," OSU coach Jim O‘Brien said. "Theirs is to win the title outright. Ours is to possibly extend our season. Things are on a different level for both teams, but we both have things that make this game more important.
"I'm sure Wisconsin and Michigan State will be pulling for us like crazy. But we're not going to talk about any of that stuff. We have to take care of this game for our own purposes. We're not talking about revenge. They beat us there, OK. But now we have to reason to think this is an important game for us."
It is remarkable that Ohio State is this deep in the season and there hasn't been that one dynamic, breakthrough moment. For instance, Ohio State is 0-7 against teams ranked in the top 50 nationally by collegerpi.com. OSU's biggest home win by ranking to date was a 72-64 win over Northwestern, just 99th in RPI. The Buckeyes have not exactly defended their home court, either, going just 9-6 at home and 8-6 inside Value City Arena (one game was played at Nationwide Arena).
Plus, today is the emotional sendoff game for three OSU seniors -- center and team captain Velimir Radinovic, power forward Shun Jenkins and former walk-on guard Shaun Smith.
Since OSU knocked off Illinois 94-88 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals two years ago, the Buckeyes have had no luck against the Illini. They dropped a 76-57 decision in Champaign last February, fell to the Illini 72-59 in the Big Ten tournament championship game last March in Chicago and got blasted 85-63 Jan. 7 in Champaign.
Clearly, the Buckeyes are hoping this will be a new day in their rivalry with the Illini.
"It's a nationally televised game on CBS and a nationally ranked opponent," Radinovic said. "The fans should really be into it. It will be an emotional game for Shaun (Smith), Shun Jenkins and myself. Hopefully we can come out on top.
"Their homecourt is a tough place to play. We haven't had them here in a couple of years. I think we've gotten better since the last time we played. Hopefully we can show them how we have improved. We got embarrassed over there."
Illinois is riding a nine-game winning streak into today's game. OSU has won three of its last four, though, to give itself just a tad bit of optimism.
O'Brien added, "I would like to think we have improved tremendously since the last time we played them. They had their way with us the last time. We got off to a real bad start.
"I think we have gotten better, but I think they are playing very well right now. They went through a stretch where they had a little malaise in their performance, but they are back playing well know and have a good streak going."
Four players average in double figures for an Illinois offense that is posting nearly 74 points a game on the year. Sophomore Deron Williams tops the Illini with 13.9 points a game. He is followed by Dee Brown (12.9 ppg.), Roger Powell (11.9 ppg.) and Luther Head (10.6 ppg.). James Augustine is the team's leading rebounder with 7.5 boards a contest.
"You can't forget Luther Head," O‘Brien said. "Luther Head is every bit as important to them. He brings a different dimension to that team. All three guys have significantly more assists than turnovers. All three are over 35 percent on threes. I think these three guys together are as difficult a trio on the perimeter as we'll play against all year. They complement each other very well. I think people worry about the three guards and that's when Powell and Augustine get some loose change."
In the first meeting, Illinois jumped on OSU for a 39-22 halftime lead. OSU cut that lead down to 53-42 midway through the second half, but Illinois scored nine straight to put the game away. OSU went 7-½ minutes without a field goal in one stretch. Reserve Nick Smith scored a career-high 22 points, hitting all six of his field goal attempts and all nine of his free throws for the Illini. Brown had 16 points and six assists, Powell and Richard McBride had 11 points and Brian Randle and Augustine each had 10 as six players got in double digits.
Terence Dials led OSU with 11 points, while Tony Stockman had 10 in that loss. The Buckeyes shot 40.4 percent from the floor and committed 16 turnovers.
"We have to concentrate on guarding and rebounding and running our offense," Radinovic said. "They're going to be overplaying. We have to be good with the ball. We can't turn it over. We have to play smart. We have to control the tempo. We can‘t get into a track meet with these guys because that would favor them."
The three seniors will be recognized prior to the game.
"They are three of the best guys you could ever be around and three of the best guys you could hope to have in your program," O‘Brien said. "It would be really nice for them if, years from now, they could look back on their senior night and think back on a win against a nationally ranked opponent.
"I think all three of these guys are just team oriented guys. I would think if I was a college player and I was on this team, I would think that all three of those guys would be guys I was friends with. I think that they embody the term teammates. There's not a selfish bone in any of their bodies."
Today's game will be special for Jenkins, whose mother will venture up from his hometown in Georgia.
"My mom has never been on an airplane," Jenkins said. "She's never been out of Albany, Ga. This will be a great experience for her.
"This means a lot for us, with the type of season that we've had, that we end the season with a bang. What better way to do it than with a win like this?
"I don't know if there will be a lot of emotions. I try and hide all of that. I wish I could have stayed longer. But in the time I was here, I learned a lot. It was a wonderful experience. I was coached by a great coach. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have done the same. It's been a great experience. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Radinovic, a Toronto native, has been a starter for most of his four seasons at OSU.
"I didn't think I would have a college career until I was in the 11th grade," he said. "Everything has been good for me here and I've enjoyed my time here. This has been the best experience in the world.
"I just want to be remembered as somebody who went out and played hard every night and as someone who was a team player. I just tried to help our team win."
His best experience at OSU?
"Probably winning the Big Ten tournament a couple of years ago," he said. "That was definitely the best time I've had. We were playing great. It was a great experience."
* According to research by Bucknuts.com, a win would give the Buckeyes would get the seven seed in the Big Ten tournament and would play Minnesota in the opening round at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
A loss would drop OSU to the ninth seed and an opening round match-up with Indiana at noon Thursday.
A win would give Illinois the top seed, while a loss would drop Illinois to the second seed behind Wisconsin.
* Gus Johnson and former Buckeye Clark Kellogg will call the action for CBS. Kellogg lives in the Columbus area, has season tickets and attends as many OSU games as possible.
* Managers Brad Smith (Perrysburg, Ohio), Erik Zadrozny (Hudson, Ohio) and Jordan Warfield (Hudson, Ohio) also will complete four-years careers as men's basketball managers. Brad Smith with his parents Dave and Marsha, Zadrozny and his mother Ingrid Eisner and Warfield with his mother Linda and grandmother Dominica Harris will be recognized. Shaun Smith will have his mother, Delisa Turner, his grandmohter Rose Smith and his father William Day. Shun Smith will be with his mother, Magalene Jenkins, and sister, Subaricca Smith. Velimir Radinivic will walk out with his parents, Rada and Gliso Radinovic.
* Stockman set a Value City Arena record with seven 3-pointers and scored 25 points to lead Ohio State to a 71-64 victory over Penn State.
* The Illini hold a 98-59 advantage in games played against Ohio State since the schools began competition in 1915. The Buckeyes are 21-58 in Champaign, 37-38 in Columbus and 1-2 at neutral sites. The Buckeyes are 10-32 against Illinois teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The Buckeyes have won four of the last eight games vs. Illinois.
* Stockman leads Ohio State with an average of 13.8 points a game. With a total of 59 steals, Stockman is among Big Ten leaders (2nd) with an average of 2.19 thefts a game. Radinovic is the team's second leading scorer with an average of 10.4 ppg. Stockman leads Ohio State vs. Big Ten competition with 13.5 ppg. Radinovic is a close second at 11.5 ppg. Sophomore Terence Dials is third with 10.9 ppg.
* Illinois coach Bruce Webber has made quite a splash in his first season as the Illinois coach. He began his tenure at Illinois this season after five years at Southern Illinois. As the Saluki mentor, Webber compiled a 103-54 record. Webber, a longtime Purdue assistant, is 21-5 at Illinois.
"I think he's just kept it going," O‘Brien said of Webber. "He did a great job under some really tough circumstances early in the year. I remember everybody was clamoring for Bill Self. It's funny how this stuff works. At Kansas, they were clamoring for Roy Williams. I think that Weber has done a tremendous job. I think these guys have done a terrific job of accepting the change. They've played into it and really prospered because of it."
* O'Brien confirmed that forward Matt Sylvester, who has missed the last 10 games due to an injured left foot, has returned to practice.
"He has practiced," the coach said. "I'm not sure he will play (against Illinois). He's been in practice about half the time. I would suspect he should be back for the Big Ten tournament."