Gameday Central: Illini knock off another ranked team on the road – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

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Beat writer Scott Richey is live from Value City Arena at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio. Follow along all afternoon for updates as No. 4 Illinois takes on No. 7 Ohio State:

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Ayo Dosunmu might not have played in Illinois’ last three games, but he still had an impact on his team.

«Good players make themselves better,» Illini coach Brad Underwood said. «Great players make their teammates better in whatever form that comes. His presence wasn’t on the court, but his presence was felt in the locker room, at practice, on the bench. That’s what great players do.»

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Ohio State put together an 87-81 victory in Champaign in mid-January. Most of the game wasn’t even that close. The Buckeyes led by as many as 18 points in the first half and held a 15-point advantage at halftime. 

Illinois narrowed that gap, of course, but Illinois had essentially no answer for Ohio State sophomore forward E.J. Liddell, who hit four three-pointers and scored a career high 26 points.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili said that Illinois team, though, is not this Illinois team. The current Illini have won 10 of their last 11 games, including the last two against AP Top 25 teams.

«That game was very different,» Bezhanishvili said. «That wasn’t us right now. That wasn’t a team that was that connected and playing that kind of defense and offense. Everything. That was a totally different team then. We’ve improved so, so much in all kinds of aspects. I feel like this game (today) will be very, very different from the first game.»

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Illinois coach Brad Underwood called it a «grind» to get to the final game of the regular season even though he also called it a «rewarding trip» to navigate everything COVID-19 in the last four-plus months.

The No. 4 Illini enter today’s game at No. 7 Ohio State coming off perhaps the biggest win of the season — and not just in Champaign — by beating No. 2 Michigan by 23 points in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Tuesday.

«Coming off the Michigan game, I thought we did some very positive things,» Underwood said. «I thought our grit, our intensity, our attention to detail was really good. I liked watching that. That’s comforting as a coach. We can talk all we want about the offensive side, but the defense was really solid. We did a great job on the glass and then opportunistic on the offensive end and executed fairly well for the most part.»

Of course, even after a win of that caliber, it was on to the next for the Illini. Next being the Buckeyes. On the road, of course.

«They’ve got a uniqueness about them with E.J. Liddell being able to step out and make threes and being able to drive it,» Underwood said. «Not necessarily a low post oriented team, but a team that shoots the three. I think they’re third in the Big Ten in three-point shooting, and they do it from all spots.

«As I said the first time around with them, I think (Duane) Washington is one of the most underrated players in our league. I still believe that. He’s had a phenomenal year. Then they’ve got a great, great shooter in (Justin) Ahrens, and then they’ve got guys (Justice) Sueing and (CJ) Walker who just elevate everybody else’s game.»

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Ayo Dosunmu’s availability changes things for Illinois. In a positive way. Adding a national player of the year contender back into the mix is never a bad thing. 

The most important matchup in today’s game, though, might still come down to Kofi Cockburn vs. E.J. Liddell. At least that’s the way ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg phrased it earlier today. (Note: Greenberg calls Cockburn «Baby Shaq» for, well, obvious reasons, I guess).

«Baby Shaq was 7 for 7 against Ohio State,» Greenberg said in a quick hit on SportsCenter on Saturday morning. «Why? Because when you play through him, it’s usually a high percentage shot.

«But I’m going to give you a little tidbit right here. Baby Shaq only has three — I’m going to repeat that, three — assists all season long. Look for Ohio State to double and get the ball out of his hands. Yes, he was 7 for 7 the last time these two teams played, but look for them to make it more difficult and make him spit it out. Not something he’s good at.»

Greenberg also weighed in on Liddell’s impact.

«(Ohio State coach) Chris Holtmann puts him in the action,» Greenberg said. «They move him all over the floor. He was 4 of 7 from the three-point line the last time these two teams played and scored 26 points. HIs ability to pull Baby Shaq away from the basket, which will open the floor for the Ohio State floor gamers, that’s going to be a key.»

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So some relatively big news that can now that I’m actually inside Value City Arena and not held up in the lobby because someone didn’t get my credential to the people at media will call. 

Ayo Dosunmu is back. The Illinois junior guard has been cleared out of concussion protocol and will play today against Ohio State. He’s masked up and going through the less formal pregame warmups right now.

More to come from Columbus.

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Based on a scientific poll I ran earlier this week (it was on Twitter — a true bastion of logical thought and reason), the Illinois fan base is fairly superstitious. Or at least a little stitious. 

At least when it comes to wearing the road blue jerseys, which haven’t been brought out since the Dec. 2 loss to Baylor in Indianapolis. It’s been all orange, all the time for the Illini in road games the rest of the season. I expect that to remain the case today against Ohio State. Probably just the regular orange alternates since it was the throwbacks on Tuesday at Michigan.

But back to superstitions. 

Jacob Grandison made 25 consecutive three-pointers during shootaround ahead of Tuesday’s game in Ann Arbor, Mich. Illinois went on to beat Michigan by 23.

So what does it mean that Grandison hit 35 consecutive threes — THIRTY-FIVE! — during today’s shootaround at Value City Arena in Columbus? Good things, right?

We’ll find out. But the video of Grandison’s feat shows one thing. This Illinois team is loose and connected. There’s not an ounce of uptight in the Illini. So regardless of how many three-pointers Grandison made or what it means (really, it means nothing other than he got hot this morning, but reading too much into things is fun), Illinois is in a good place. 

At least as of this morning. 

Maintaining that looseness and connectivity this afternoon is the important thing. Ohio State might be on a three-game losing streak, but the Buckeyes know what it takes to beat the Illini. Because they already did it this season.

Tuesday’s win at Michigan was a statement. Another road win against a top 25 team — three in a row to end the regular season — just doubles down on that statement. Illinois shouldn’t be trifled with.

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