Ohio State sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson (34) puts up a shot in the first half of the game against Indiana on Feb. 10. Ohio State won 55-52. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

Ohio State and Illinois are 7.5 games apart in record, but both teams find themselves in similar positions approaching their matchup.

The Buckeyes and Fighting Illini have each won three straight and four of their past five. But both are coming off a rough stretch, with Ohio State losing five in a row to start 2019 and Illinois losing 14 of its first 19 games of the season.

Both teams are in the bottom four in the Big Ten in rebounding due to a lack of size, and both are young teams improving with increased experience.

Even though Ohio State already defeated Illinois 77-67 on Dec. 5, head coach Chris Holtmann is expecting a new and improved Fighting Illini in the two months since the previous matchup.

“They’re a much different team than what they were when we played them in December,” Holtmann said. “A couple of their freshmen kids are playing really well and they’re getting contributions from a lot of guys.”

Projected Starters

Ohio State (16-7, 6-6 Big Ten)

G — C.J. Jackson — Senior, 12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.6 apg

G — Luther Muhammad — Freshman, 10.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg

G — Musa Jallow — Sophomore, 2.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.3 apg

F — Andre Wesson — Junior, 8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 apg

F — Kaleb Wesson — Sophomore, 14.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.8 apg

Illinois (9-15, 5-8 Big Ten)

G — Trent Frazier — Sophomore, 14.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.7 apg

G — Da’Monte Williams — Sophomore, 3.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.1apg

G — Ayo Dosunmu — Freshman, 14.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg

G — Aaron Jordan — Senior, 8.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.5 apg

F — Giorgi Bezhanishvili — Freshman, 12.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.9 apg

In Illinois’ previous four wins, it has defeated then-No. 13 Maryland, then-No. 9 Michigan State, Nebraska and Rutgers, all teams the Buckeyes have lost to at some point this season.

Against the Scarlet Knights, the Fighting Illini relied on freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who finished the game with 35 points on 14-of-18 shooting from the field.

“He’s a versatile interior guy that plays really well in their offense and defensive stuff,” Holtmann said. “He’s really smart, he can score over either shoulder and obviously when you have 35, you’re playing pretty confidently.”

Illinois currently ranks No. 71 on KenPom, second-worst in the Big Ten to Rutgers. Ohio State is currently at No. 32 in the rankings. However, the Fighting Illini hold an advantage over the rest of the conference in forced turnovers.

At 17 turnovers forced per game, Illinois is No. 15 in the NCAA and No. 1 in the Big Ten. On the other end, Ohio State holds a 17.1 turnover percentage, turning the ball over the most in the Big Ten on average per 100 possessions.

“I do think that catches up to you,” Holtmann said. “It’s no secret, right? We’re playing a team that leads the league in turnover percentage defensively, and it’s the area that we’re the weakest in the league. We’re 14th. They’re No. 1, so certainly it’s a tough matchup for us in that regard.”

But the defensive mismatch Illinois presents to the Buckeyes is not what is on sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson’s mind. He said the Fighting Illini have always had a tough defense.

Instead, it is the newfound offensive ability in the recent stretch that should be the major difference.

“They’re very physical on defense. They play for a lot of steals, and then offensively they have a lot of weapons on offense, too,” Wesson said. “I feel like they’ve always been tough on the defensive end. I feel like their offense is clicking now. You know they’re a tough team to play when their offense is clicking.”

Ohio State takes on Illinois at home at 7 p.m. Thursday.