Despite facing few big tests during the non-conference portion of the schedule, coach Thad Matta believed Ohio State’s bad losses against top-tier programs would better prepare his team for the Big Ten.
That premonition, however, failed to materialize in the conference opener.
The 20th-ranked Buckeyes look to avoid opening with consecutive losses in the Big Ten for the first time in five years on Saturday when they host Illinois, which is coming off a disappointing defeat of its own.
While Ohio State (11-3) has proved it can handle teams like UMass-Lowell, Sacred Heart and North Carolina A&T, power conference teams have given it trouble. Just like it had in losses to No. 5 Louisville and then-No. 24 North Carolina, the Buckeyes again came out flat in Tuesday’s 71-65 loss to Iowa.
They were down 17-5 less than 4 minutes into the game and went into the locker room at the half trailing by 12.
"We’ve obviously got to get it figured out," Matta said. "We’ve got to look at the film and say, how do we get better? What do we have to do? We can’t make the mistakes that we made defensively. It was mind-boggling at times the things we did."
In their losses, the Buckeyes averaged 26.7 points on 36.1 percent shooting in the first half and trailed by an average of 13.7 points after 20 minutes.
"We have to come out with more fire and be ready to play," senior forward Sam Thompson said. "We can’t dig ourselves into a hole like that again."
Freshman D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State’s leading scorer, again had a hard time finding his shot – just as he has in the previous defeats. He’s averaging 13.7 points on 26.4 percent shooting – including 4 of 24 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range – in the losses compared to averaging 18.4 points on 53.0 percent shooting and 54.2 percent (32 of 59) from beyond the arc in the victories.
Another slow start and subpar showing from Russell could drop Ohio State to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2009-10.
Illinois (10-4) is in danger of opening conference play with consecutive losses for the first time since starting 0-4 in 2007-08 after blowing a 13-point lead midway through the second half of Tuesday’s 73-65 overtime loss at Michigan. The Illini missed 7 of 9 shots and had three turnovers in the final 9:23 of regulation.
"Obviously, we’re disappointed," Illinois coach John Groce said. "We led for most of the game … and I thought the first 25 minutes, it was the best we had played."
Like the Buckeyes, the Illini have also had problems with teams from power conferences. In addition to Tuesday’s defeat, Illinois’ losses have been to No. 6 Villanova, then-No. 15 Miami and Oregon. It’s only victory over a power conference team since the start of December came against five-win Missouri.
Rayvonte Rice went 3 of 11 for a season-low eight points – nine less than his team-leading average – on Tuesday but contributed 11 rebounds and six assists. Since transferring from Drake prior to last season, Rice had his worst game at Ohio State last Jan. 23, missing all eight of his field goal attempts to go scoreless in a 62-55 defeat.
The Buckeyes have won three straight over Illinois and nine of 11 meetings. They’ve also won five straight in Columbus since a 70-68 loss in 2009.