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No. 13 Illinois isn’t resting on laurels, focuses on Ohio State

Mar 10, 2024; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) walks off the court after the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

No. 13 Illinois effectively has punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, but don’t suggest to coach Brad Underwood that his team’s play in the Big Ten tournament is irrelevant.

After enjoying a bye for the first two rounds, the second-seeded Fighting Illini (23-8) will meet 10th-seeded Ohio State (20-12)) in quarterfinal action Friday night in Minneapolis. The Buckeyes never trailed in their 90-78 upset of seventh-seeded Iowa in the second round on Thursday night.

“I’m playing to win,” Underwood said. “I’m playing to win. I’m playing to win every damn game we go out and play. You can say it doesn’t mean anything, and the NCAA Tournament is the NCAA Tournament. As long as we’re playing games that the jersey on the other side says a different university, and it’s a different color, we’re trying to play to win.

“I don’t buy all the (talk about) rest. … I’m there to play to win. I would love to be standing on a ladder trying to cut down a net on Sunday — and then try to go do it again.”

Illinois already defeated Ohio State in the regular season, but that was during a different time for the Buckeyes. The Illini marched into Columbus on Jan. 30 and rolled to an 87-75 triumph as All-Big Ten wings Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask posted 23 points apiece.

But on Feb. 14, Ohio State fired Chris Holtmann — who was named DePaul’s head coach Thursday — and appointed top assistant Jake Diebler the interim boss. Since that time, the Buckeyes have posted a 6-1 record that includes wins over projected NCAA Tournament teams in Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan State.

Ohio State is riding a five-game winning streak.

“Our guys have come together,” Diebler said Thursday. “They’ve battled. We’ve raised our toughness and togetherness, and that’s been the biggest difference.”

Underwood believes he’s seen additional differences.

“I think they’re playing a little faster,” he said. “I think they’re 3-4 possessions faster (per game). They’re playing everybody and going deeper into their bench. They’ve got really good players.”

Ohio State has ratcheted up its defense, too. Illinois shot 51.7 percent from the field in the teams’ Jan. 30 game — something that none of Ohio State’s opponents have matched since the coaching change.

The Illini shoot well enough from 3-point range (35.0 percent), and they get to the free-throw line a good deal while shooting 74.1 percent.

And, of course, they have three All-Big Ten players. Shannon (21.6 ppg) has been a first-team all-league pick two years in a row. Graduate transfer Domask (16.0 ppg, 3.5 apg) earned first-team honors from the coaches and a second-team nod from the media. Senior Coleman Hawkins (12.9 ppg) was a third-team pick by the media.

“You’ve got to be able to have multiple options,” Underwood said. “You’ve got to be able to have a guy or two. I like the fact we can play multiple ways. We can put a five-out lineup that can all shoot it. We can put some size out there. I like our versatility on that end a great deal. It’s what we’ve been playing for — to have that versatility.”

–Field Level Media

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