Starting Five: Buckeyes Aim to Right Ship vs. Illinois
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the second consecutive Monday, the now No. 9-ranked Ohio State men’s basketball team (22-5, 10-4) has dropped in the polls. Today, for the second consecutive Tuesday, the Buckeyes will return to action 72 hours after suffering a loss when they host Illinois (16-11, 5-9) for a 7 p.m. tip that will air live on ESPN.
Ohio State’s descent in the polls on Monday was the result of a 56-51 road loss at No. 17 Michigan (20-7, 10-4) on Saturday. For a team that would have to win out in conference play to avoid its worst Big Ten record in the past three seasons, the Buckeyes are no stranger to rebounding from a defeat on short notice.
“We’re just trying to focus right now and make ourselves the best team we can. Time is running out,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said.
“There has to be a sense of urgency on our team now and I think we’re starting to understand that we have four games left.”
Head coach Thad Matta said that the keys to Ohio State rediscovering its winning ways are pretty simple.
“We got to continue to defend at a high level. We’ve got to continue to keep our transition defense in check,” Matta said.
“Offensively, when we’re supposed to screen, we’ve got to screen. When we’re supposed to have the ball in a certain spot, we’ve got to have it a certain spot. And if at all possible, get back and get some easy baskets.”
The Buckeyes’ loss to the Wolverines again showcased an OSU shooting performance that was inconsistent to say the least. After it missed 30 shots—including 13 three-point attempts—against Michigan, Matta said that his team only deserves partial blame for its 38.8 percent shooting percentage.
“We missed some good shots. Give them credit, they challenged a lot of shots. ” Matta said of Michigan.
“They made some difficult shots and we didn’t.”
Without a consistent 3-point shooting threat in their line-up, the Buckeyes have witnessed several teams leave perimeter players wide-open in favor of double-teaming sophomore forward Jared Sullinger.
“You’ve got to have a balance. You’ve got to have a little bit of one to get a lot of the other both ways, Matta said.
“If you’re controlling inside, then your shots on the outside are going to be more open and conversely, if you’re scoring more on the outside, your shots on the inside are going to be more open.”
One thing that could help aid OSU’s shooting woes would be transition baskets, something that the Buckeyes didn’t get any of against Michigan on Saturday.
“We didn’t convert at the level that we needed to,” Matta said.
“We had some situations where we had numbers and we didn’t finish, we passed behind, we got it tipped from behind. Just little things.”
Thomas said that in the days since the Buckeyes’ loss to the Wolverines, Matta and his staff has put an emphasis on scoring more fast break points.
“We ran a lot of full court stuff,” Thomas said.
“We worked on our offense, our offensive flow with easy buckets we can get instead of probably jacking up a three or something like that. We’re just running our offense to see the easy points we can get.”
Big Ten Battle
Despite all that has gone wrong for the Buckeyes in the past two weeks, they still find themselves in a position where a win tomorrow would put them just a half-game back of the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten standings. Matta said that his team still has work to do if it’s going to win a third consecutive—and most difficult to obtain—conference title.
“In my eight years in the league, in the Big Ten, this is probably the best that I’ve seen it in terms of from top to bottom, the parity, the caliber of players that are in this league,” Matta said.
“We won this league two years in a row and we’ve got work to do to get another one, but it’s challenging, it’s hard.”
With the Buckeyes still scheduled for one more game with Big Ten-leading Michigan State, Craft said that having control of its own destiny in the conference has outweighed the four conference losses already suffered by OSU.
“We’re pretty positive,” Craft said.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to continue to have success and we’re still able reach the goal that we set out at the beginning of the season and that’s to win a Big Ten championship.”
Scouting The Illini
As if avoiding a losing streak and a share of the Big Ten lead weren’t enough motivation, Tuesday will be a revenge game of sorts for the Buckeyes as they take on the same Fighting Illini team that beat OSU 79-74 on Jan. 10. Since that victory, Illinois suffered a free fall, compiling a 1-8 record, with its only other win coming against Michigan State.
Matta said that his team doesn’t need to be reminded of what happened a month ago when Illini guard Brandon Paul scored 43 points against the Buckeyes, but that all of OSU’s focus must be on itself.
“We’ve got five losses in 22 games and one of them was Illinois,” Matta said. “We’ve got to have ourselves ready to play.”
Paul is the Illini’s leading scorer with 14.9 points per game. He’s been aided by the emergence of sophomore 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard, a potential NBA lottery pick who is averaging 12.9 points and eight rebounds per game.
Thomas said that facing a team like the Illini is just what the Buckeyes need to get focused on the remainder of the season.
“They’re a great team. We went down there and they played well. They played hard on defense and they’ve got great players who can score,” Thomas said.
“We take this as another game to get focused and our minds right. I take it as a rival. I take every game as a rival. We should just come in and play hard and play with intensity.”