By JEFF HUTH
CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois women’s basketball team owes a large debt of gratitude to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The same Buckeyes who’ll visit the Assembly Hall at 7 p.m. Thursday to take on the Illini.
Not that Illinois is in any position to extend the kind of thank-you Ohio State would appreciate most. In fact, this Big Ten game is nothing less than a must-win for an Illini team intent on remaining on course for a top-four seed in the conference tournament and the coveted first-round bye that comes with it.
And with Ohio State coming off a 67-60 victory against a Michigan State team that beat Illinois earlier this season, UI coach Matt Bollant has reason to cast a wary eye at the second-division — but clearly dangerous — Buckeyes.
“You always wonder how confident they’re going to be (after) knocking off Michigan State, a really good team,” Bollant said Tuesday.
There’s no doubt the Buckeyes did the Illini a huge favor Monday night by taking down the Spartans. The outcome prevented Michigan State from moving into a third-place tie in the Big Ten standings.
Instead, third place is shared by Illinois and Purdue, each 9-5. And that means the Illini control their own destiny. If Illinois can sweep its final two regular season games — against Ohio State and then Sunday at Purdue — it would be assured of a top-four seed.
“That’s a big deal,” Bollant said.
Why? For starters, Illinois (16-10) would need to win one fewer game in its quest for a Big Ten tournament title. A 3-0 run at next month’s event in suburban Chicago would do the trick. Should the Illini be seeded fifth or lower, they would be forced to win four games in four days to emerge with the title.
“Everybody’s goal is to win the tournament, and playing four games in four days is extremely difficult,” Bollant said. “(With a bye), you come in a little more rested going into that second day and it gives you a better chance (to win it all).”
In Bollant’s view, a top-four Big Ten seed also undoubtedly would stamp a team’s ticket to the NCAA tournament. Because of the strength of the conference, the UI coach is convinced that the league’s top four teams are a lock for the NCAA field, regardless of how they fare in the conference tournament.
”If you finish in the top four of the Big Ten, you’re going to the NCAA tournament,” Bollant flatly stated. “If you finish top four, I think you could lose in the quarterfinals and still be going.”
This is uncharted territory for current Illini players. No member of this team has finished higher in the Big Ten standings than a tie for eighth place or been seeded higher than ninth in the conference tournament.
“It’s really, really exciting,” Illini sophomore guard Alexis Smith said. “We just need to keep going so we can reach it. We’ve just got to take care of the next two games.”
Initially standing in their way is Ohio State (15-12, 5-9), a team the Illini defeated 79-73 on Jan. 6 to end the Buckeyes’ 31-game home winning streak.
Once 1-7 in the Big Ten race, Ohio State has won four of its last six games to move into a three-way tie for eighth place. This recent revival has raised the stakes for Ohio State, too, entering Thursday’s game at the Assembly Hall.
“They’re trying to make a run here at the NCAA tournament as well,” Bollant said.
If the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament were to begin today, here’s how the teams would be seeded:
1. Penn State*
6. Michigan State#
10. Ohio State
* — secured first-round bye
# — in running for first-round bye