Coming off their fifth loss of the season, the Buckeyes looked to bounce back at home against the struggling Fighting Illini. Unfortunately for Illinois, they simply did not have the horses to keep up with the intense Ohio State attack, and fell 83-67 in Columbus. Meyers Leonard of Illinois led all scorers with 21 points, while Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 19. William Buford and Aaron Craft rounded out the OSU double digit scorers with 17 and 11 respectively – a solid game from the Buckeye’s leaders.
The Buckeye Nuthouse was proudly sporting shirts that read “Retire #32″ tonight. The shirts were in honor of Dennis Hopson and his excellent career for the Scarlet and Gray in the mid-80′s. To see the students supporting OSU history so enthusiastically was amazing, and I’m proud of the passion that they have shown for Hopson.
The Buckeyes came out of the gate very determined to earn the win tonight. The team played with amazing energy and intensity from the outset. Their passes were sharp and crisp, and placed where only the intended recipient could recieve it. Even better, the Buckeyes were finding open shooters and making great shot selection. The best was William Buford’s shot fake from above the charity stripe that turned into a pass to an open Aaron Craft for three, putting Illinois down by double digits and forcing Bruce Weber into an early timeout.
Thad Matta mixed up the bench rotations in a big way. Instead of having Shannon Scott come in solely for Aaron Craft as we have seen all season long, Scott came in and played the two for Lenzelle Smith. That allowed the Buckeyes to have a pair of good ball control point guards in the game. We also saw Sam Thompson come into the game for Buford early and get quality playing time, including an amazing one handed tomahawk ally-oop from the aforementioned Scott.
The Fighting Illini entered the game playing like they had no fight in them at all. The Buckeyes opened the first 10 minutes of the game shooting an obscene 91% from the floor. Illinois’ defense simply looked like they had no answer for what the Buckeyes wanted to do. Worse yet, Illinois couldn’t figure out how to get their own offense going on the other end of the court, shooting an abysmal 23% overall. That sort of differential in the shooting percentage is not a good way to start a basketball game period, let alone against one of the top team’s in the conference on *their* home court.
A change in defensive strategy by Bruce Weber helped Illinois slow down the OSU offensive onslaught. By playing a 3/4s court trap defense, where they play defense for most of the court and attempt to trap the ball handler at half-court, they forced the Bucks into several turnovers and a couple ugly rushed shots.
Ohio State responded by speeding up their offense and looking ahead for open passing lanes to beat the trap. By doing so, they were able to take the Illinois defense off-balance and find some better, more open looks at the basket. DeShaun Thomas in particular dropped a great outside three after calling for the ball. He knew that his defender was playing off of him, and that he’d have an excellent opportunity for an open shot.
With the Buckeyes running with varying lineups from the bench the Illini managed to put together an 8-0 run. Part of the success was in running their offense with OSU running the talented, but inexperienced, Amir Williams down low. Meyers Leonard abused Williams on several occasions, occasionally luring him out of the paint so that Williams couldn’t use his height and talent to change shots down low.
Neither team emerged from the half playing smart basketball. Both teams committed cheap turnovers, and the defensive intensity was lacking after a much more impressive first half. OSU’s sluggishness on defense allowed Illinois to get a couple second chance baskets with some bad boxing out. It also allowed an Illinois shooter to fumble a pass, collect himself, and still put up a shot (that he missed). Three OSU defenders stood in the paint, with no Illinois players around, and watched the shot go up without making a move to contest the basket.
The focus reasserted itself after the first television timeout. It would be unsurprising if Thad Matta spent the entire timeout talking about how important it is to continue to maintain concentration and play all 40 minutes. That is even more true in the Big Ten, where any team can beat you on any given night if you relax off of them.
As if to prove the point, Illinois had an excellent opportunity to make a big comeback down 17 in the middle of the second half. After two quick fouls, including a horribly called flagrant foul after an incidental elbow contact to Meyers Leonard’s chin, Jared Sullinger was forced to go to the bench. With Sully sitting Leonard had a chance to impose his will on this game in a big way. Unfortunately, the Illini didn’t seem to be able to take advantage of his strength in the paint. Rather than watching an Illinois comeback, the Buckeyes instead opened the lead ever wider.
After Sullinger managed to return to the game he shortly committed his fifth foul, but not until after scoring a few points down low and drawing a couple fouls. Once Sullinger had to bow out, Matta immediately began reaching into his bench. Guys like Sibert, Weatherspoon, Ross, and McDonald got a chance to see the court in the late game and play a little. It was good experience for them as a whole, after several tough games of having to stay on the bench.
The Buckeyes shot 32-48 (66.7%) from the floor and 7-13 (53.8%) from the three point arc, much better than they’ve been shooting the last few games. Illinois responded with 23-60 (38.3%) and 3-18 (16.7%) respectively. The Buckeyes outrebounded Illinois 32-27, but lost the offensive boards battle 11-5.
Getting a win like this, no matter who the opponent was, was very important for this Buckeyes team – especially with Sullinger having to sit for a critical stretch. In a tough run of games, with two losses in their last three, confidence must have been lacking. The Bucks needed to focus and come out firing on all cylinders and prove to themselves that they really are this good. More importantly, it emphasized the importance of working hard in practice and how that translates to quality play on the court.
Ohio State will next play the Wisconsin Badgers at home in Value City Arena on Sunday, February 26th at 4:00 PM EST. You’ll be able to see the game on CBS.