Still in the title hunt, Buckeyes close out against Illini

The 14th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes will attempt to stake a claim to a portion of the Big Ten regular season title, as they close out the regular season at home on Sunday against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Thad Matta's Buckeyes are in the mix around the top of the league standings, sitting one game behind Indiana (13-4 Big Ten) and tied with both Michigan and Michigan State in the league standings at 12-5. For Ohio State to share in the conference crown, the Wolverines would have to top the Hoosiers in a showdown later on in the day. The Buckeyes have certainly done their part to stay in the hunt with wins in each of the last four games, including a huge 67-58 win at Indiana last time out.

John Groce's Illini have jumped in and out of the top-25 this season, but are currently not among the group. Inconsistent play in-conference is the main culprit, with Illinois sitting a game under .500 at 8-9, despite a solid 21-10 overall record. The Illini have lost two of their last three games entering this regular-season finale, including a 63-55 setback at Iowa last Tuesday.

Illinois holds a 104-70 advantage in the all-time series with Ohio State and is seeking the regular-season sweep after recording a 74-55 rout of the Buckeyes in Champaign on Jan. 5.

The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive performances of the season against the Hawkeyes last time out, shooting an ugly 28.6 percent from the floor, with a mere 18 field goals in the game total and managing a mere 55 points (third lowest output of the season). Brandon Paul led the team in defeat with 18 points. D.J. Richardson finished with 13, but the remainder of the team managed a combined 24 points in the setback.

While Illinois is certainly no offensive juggernaut, the offensive numbers have been a bit better on the season overall. The Illini come into the finale averaging 70.3 ppg on a modest .423 shooting. Paul hasn't shot the ball particularly well this season (.404), but is still among the league leaders in scoring at 16.2 ppg (fifth in the Big Ten). Richardson is next in line at 12.8 ppg, with yet another guard, Tracy Abrams, rounding out the top offensive threats on the team with his 10.6 ppg.

Ohio State doesn't put up huge scoring totals either, as the Buckeyes are averaging 70.2 ppg, on .453 shooting. Where the team has excelled is on the defensive end, where foes are averaging just 58.8 ppg and being held under 40 percent shooting (.396). While the Buckeyes are not explosive as a team, they do boast of the conference's top scorer in junior Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging a conference-best 19.8 ppg and also leads the team in rebounding with 6.2 rpg. Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the only other double-figure scorer on the roster at 10.1 ppg. However, point guard Aaron Craft (9.6 ppg) isn't far off the mark, but is more an asset as a distributor (4.4 apg) and a defender (team-high 57 steals). Craft is the school's all-time leader in steals.

In the win over Indiana, it was Thomas again that led the way offensively, leading all scorers with 18 points. Craft poured in 15 points in support, while recording four steals. With the win, Ohio State has now knocked off three top-five foes in the same season for just the fourth time in school history.