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APTOPIX Ohio St Illinois Basketball

Ohio State forward Kaleb Wesson, center, battles Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu, left, and guard Alan Griffin, right, for the ball during the first meeting between Illinois and Ohio State this season. Wesso finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.

CHAMPAIGN — When the University of Illinois basketball team sat down to watch film of a Dec. 5 loss to Ohio State, the Illini couldn't help being in disbelief of what they saw.

"I don’t know if that was painful or a comedy show or maybe all of the above," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

Underwood and the Illini players know there has been improvement in the two months since the first meeting. They've climbed up the Big Ten standings, and up 42 spots in the KenPom ratings in the last month — from 113th to 71st — after winning three straight and four of the last five with two upsets of Top 25 teams.

"They're a much different team than they were when we played them in December," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said.

But another hurdle remains for Illinois: Win a true road game — the Illini (9-15, 5-8) are 0-6 on the road. That challenge comes at 6 p.m. Thursday when Illinois travels to Ohio State (16-7, 10-4), which also has won three straight.

“It’s huge," freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu said of getting a road win. "We talked as a team (Wednesday) about our goals, finishing the season off and what we want to do. Getting the next one on the road, that’s the first step."

Underwood hasn't seen a common theme emerge in the road losses — each loss has had its own identity. In the most recent, an 86-75 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 30, Illinois couldn't keep the Gophers off the offensive glass. Iowa hit 15 3-pointers to beat Illinois on Jan. 20. Before that, Illinois didn't hit a 3-pointer in a loss at Northwestern on Jan. 6.

“To win on the road you’ve got to have a little extra toughness and a little extra grit," Underwood said. "Maybe we haven’t had that quite enough."

Underwood said all teams struggle to hit shots on the road. Illinois is shooting 46.4 percent from the field in 12 home games and 41.1 percent in its six true road games. The Illini make 36.3 percent of their 3-pointers at home and 30.6 percent on the road.

Dosunmu and freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week and Big Ten Player of the Week, respectively, emphasized toughness for a full game as a key to winning in a hostile environment.

"You have to be mentally tough for 40 minutes," Dosunmu said. "You can’t take any plays off."

In the six road losses, Illinois has led at halftime in three. The Illini have strung together 20 minutes on the road, but struggled to put a whole game together.

“We think that’s the next step: To be disciplined for 40 straight minutes on the road and to not really get into an environment where we get mentally down and the crowd is really screaming," Bezhanishvili said.

Bezhanishvili will have his hands full with Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson, who had 13 points and seven rebounds in the first meeting. A 6-foot-9, 270-pound sophomore, Wesson has averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in the last five games. Freshman Luther Muhammad is at 13.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in his last five.

In the first meeting, Bezhanishvili battled foul trouble and fouled out with five points and five rebounds. But now he's coming off of a 35-point performance against Rutgers.

"He was in foul trouble at their place," Holtmann said, "which ultimately might have been a difference in the game. He's a versatile interior guy who plays really well in their offense and defense. He's really smart."

Prior to hosting Nebraska on Feb. 2, the Illini set a goal to sweep their homestand, which they achieved on Saturday against Rutgers. With seven regular season games left, the goal turns from the macro to the micro.

“We go game-by-game now," Bezhanishvili said. "Our goal is to get roadkill, as the guys say. We haven’t had that yet; that’s our goal. We just look at Ohio State really hungry to get that roadkill."

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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