Ohio State, Illinois heading opposite directions

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two programs with pretty high

standards met Tuesday night in a game both needed, but for different reasons.

The eighth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes delivered what’s become their typical

response, having entered the game 4-0 in games following a loss — and with all

four wins by double digits.

Illinois also delivered a performance which, suddenly, has also become typical.

Tuesday night’s 83-67 victory was a double-revenge game for the Buckeyes, who

were coming off a slow-paced loss at Michigan on Saturday and lost at Illinois

on Jan. 10. It was just the latest dud for the Illini, who have now lost nine

of 10 since rallying to beat Ohio State, 79-74, in Champaign. In the last two

weeks Illinois has gone from virtual NCAA Tournament lock to 10th place in the

Big Ten with a conference mark of 5-10. 

This one was more therapeutic than statement-making for Ohio State. The

Buckeyes still have to host Wisconsin, play at a desperate Northwestern and face

Michigan State (another revenge game) on the road on the final day of the

regular season.

The Illini look like a team wishing that final day was yesterday. Their latest

loss started at 7:06 p.m. and was over by 7:18. The Buckeyes made 11 of their

first 12 shots, jumping out to leads of 28-8 and 40-18. Jared Sullinger didn’t

even score in double figures for Ohio State, but three other Buckeyes did.

“We were able to get out and get some easy buckets because of our

defense,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “That was delightful to

see, trust me.”

Ohio State shot nearly 71 percent for the first half and 65 percent for the

game. The Illini shot under 40 percent for the game and 3 of 18 from behind the

3-point line. They’re shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc in

conference games, worst in the league. They’re the worst in league play at

defending the 3-point line, too.

“The thing that’s so frustrating for me is our defense,” Illinois

coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s something that carried us early in the year

and gave as a chance to win games, and now it’s not there.

“Unless the defense and the pride of the defense changes, nothing is going

to change.”

Weber’s seat has been hot all month. Matta has just been hot around the collar

as the Buckeyes have struggled to score vs. good teams and are still trying

different personnel combinations with 12 days left in the regular season. Ohio

State has talent, and when the good William Buford shows up —he had 17 points

on 7-of-9 shooting Tuesday —the Buckeyes can still go up and down with anybody.

“When we’re hitting shots early, we feel like we’re unstoppable,”

Buford said. “Like nobody can beat us.”

The Buckeyes want pace, and they got it Tuesday night. Matta used a two-point-guard

lineup with freshman Shannon Scott seeing 22 minutes and dishing out four

assists. Deshaun Thomas went 6 of 8 from the field for a team-high 19 points

and also had five rebounds.

“They just have so many weapons,” Weber said. “You could see

they were in a zone.”

The Illinois freefall continued with every Ohio State shot that dropped. Three

nights after losing by 23 at Nebraska — yes, Nebraska — Illinois watched Ohio

State get open shots at will (and connect on a highlight-reel alley-oop from

Scott to fellow freshman Sam Thompson).

“It’s pride,” Weber said. “We had it early this year. We guarded

and we were tough.

“You go back to ’03,’04,’05,’06, those guys guarded. We got a lot of

credit for offense but when you really studied us we were pretty good

defensively.”

The Illini also have a negative rebounding margin and turnover margin in

conference play. They won the turnover battle Tuesday, but only because Ohio

State got sloppy long after the game had been decided. 

It was decided very early. The Buckeyes shouldn’t be written off yet, but they

still have plenty of proving to do. Their opponent Tuesday night, frankly,

didn’t put up much of a fight.