Illinois (18-11) at Ohio State (23-7)

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  • Game info: 9:00 pm EST Tue Mar 2, 2010
Preview | Box Score | Recap

For a team that watched its best player suffer a scary back injury before losing three of its first four conference games, Ohio State’s done pretty well for itself in the Big Ten.

Evan Turner and the sixth-ranked Buckeyes can complete their turnaround Tuesday night in Columbus, where a victory over Illinois would give them at least a share of the regular-season conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Ohio State (23-7, 13-4) was off to a 7-1 non-conference start, and Turner’s fantastic all-around play had coach Thad Matta’s team thinking the program’s first Big Ten title since 2006-07 was within reach.

Those hopes seemed to be in serious jeopardy when Turner suffered a broken back in a Dec. 5 win against Eastern Michigan. The star junior made it back quicker than expected, though, returning Jan. 6 to a team that was out of sorts offensively after dropping its first two conference games.

The Buckeyes’ struggles didn’t last. After splitting the first two games following his return, Ohio State has won 12 of 13, and Turner’s averages of 21.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.1 steals have made him a frontrunner for both conference and national player of the year honors.

“I wanted to win a Big Ten title, try to get a national championship and try to be one of the best to ever come out of here,” Turner said.

“If I never won a Big Ten title or anything like that, that would nag at me for the rest of my life.”

While Turner’s place alongside Buckeye greats Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Jim Jackson can provide plenty of debate, he can accomplish his first goal Tuesday. Ohio State’s 66-55 win over Michigan on Saturday set the stage for it to take over the Big Ten lead if Michigan State could knock off Purdue one day later, and the Spartans delivered.

While a victory over the Illini (18-11, 10-6) wouldn’t ensure the Buckeyes of an outright Big Ten title, it would give them the No. 1 seed heading into the conference tournament.

“I’ve never been a guy who thought about a conference championship along the way. It’s more, ‘Let’s just play the next game,”’ Matta said after Saturday’s win. “I’m very proud of where we are today … but we just have to get these guys ready to go again on Tuesday night.”

While Ohio State is making a case for a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, Illinois is fighting just to be among the field of 65 after dropping three of four. It has wins over Michigan State, Clemson and Wisconsin, but also has some questionable non-conference losses and one blowout defeat already against the Buckeyes.

Jon Diebler scored 18 points, David Lighty added 17 and Turner had 16, 11 boards and eight assists in Ohio State’s 72-53 win in Champaign on Feb. 14.

“We couldn’t make nothing,” said Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey, the only Big Ten player to average more assists (6.9) than Turner (5.9). “They’ve got the best starting five in the conference, I believe.”

The Illini shot 34.3 percent against the Buckeyes, but were even worse Saturday against fellow bubble team Minnesota. McCamey shot 4 of 18, part of his team’s 31.9 percent performance in a 62-60 loss.

Despite the loss to the Gophers, one Illinois win or one Minnesota defeat gives the Illini the final first-day bye in the Big Ten tournament.

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