A good week for No. 23 Illinois potentially could become a great one with a victory at No. 19 Ohio State on Thursday.
The Illini (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten) have a chance to share the conference title with wins against the Buckeyes (20-9, 10-8) in Columbus and in their home finale vs. No. 18 Iowa on Sunday.
Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin also can finish at 14-6.
“We came here to win Big Ten championships,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We’ve talked a lot about that. We’re not out of it yet, and we’re in the last week of the season. I feel great about that, and I’m so happy for our fans.”
The Illini have a shot at their first regular season Big Ten title since 2004-05 and will finish above .500 in league play for the first time since 2009-10. They have the largest turnaround this season among the six major conferences, improving on last season’s 12-21 record.
With Illinois poised make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012-13, the school announced Monday that Underwood agreed to a contract extension, adding three years to the original six he signed in 2017 when he took over the program.
“There’s no place I’d rather be,” he told the Illini Inquirer. “We got the most passionate fans. We’ve got the most intelligent fans. Recruiting’s on a great tick. We’ve got an unbelievable staff. There are just so many things that are positives.”
Illinois rebounded from a four-game losing streak in February to win its past four games but faces a challenge in the surging Buckeyes.
Ohio State was 2-6 in the Big Ten but has won three in row and eight of 10 while overcoming adversity.
Guard D.J. Carton took a leave of absence to address mental health issues on Jan. 30 and has not rejoined the team. Starting forward Kyle Young has missed the past two games with an ankle sprain and his status for Thursday is unknown.
“Obviously, we need Kyle back,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’re not a better team without Kyle.”
The Buckeyes are coming off a 77-63 win over Michigan on Sunday in which they outscored the Wolverines 23-9 in the final seven minutes.
“We tell each other all the time that we’re built for this and made for this,” guard Duane Washington Jr. said. “This is why we came to Ohio State, for moments like this.”
The Buckeyes will play a big role in deciding the conference champion, as they play at No. 16 Michigan State on Sunday.
But Ohio State is more concerned about being in top form heading into the tournament.
“I think we had to close ranks and find a way to try to come together and perform better and own why we were struggling and what we were doing to struggle,” Holtmann said. “That goes back to the guys in the locker room, particularly our captains. They owned the fact we had to perform better.”
–Field Level Media