Preview: Illinois at No. 17 Ohio State

By Kyle Rowland on January 23, 2014 at 9:15a
Thad Matta's blood pressure has been high for two weeks. Purple-faced Thad Matta is tired of poor play.
Ohio State Buckeyes #17 Ohio State 15-4, 2-4 Big Ten Roster | Schedule 7:00 PM ET - ESPN —— The Schott Columbus, OH Illinois Fighting Illini Illinois 13-6, 2-4 Big Ten Roster | Schedule

It’s hard for many to believe that two weeks ago, Ohio State was undefeated, ranked No. 3 in the country and on the verge of completing a monumental comeback at Michigan State. But a layup at the buzzer missed, the Buckeyes lost in overtime and the tailspin has been precipitous ever since.

A failure to correct the lingering problems could give way to Ohio State’s first five-game losing streak in more than 15 years.

“It is a little bit,” That Matta said, when asked if all the losing surprised him. “But it is what it is, and we’ve got to face the reality of it and try to get as much as we can squared away.”

Luckily for their sake, the Buckeyes have an appetizing matchup with Illinois. The Fighting Illini are in a similar state of disarray. They were 13-2 and ranked in the top 25 before losing four straight games – by an average of 13.8 points.

Midseason struggles are nothing new for Matta at Ohio State. In fact, it seems as if there’s an annual bottoming out period. This is the third straight year the Buckeyes have gone through a horrid stretch. But it’s undeniable that this year is different, simply because the team has a smaller margin for error than in past seasons.

“I love this team. I love the work we’ve put in, I love all those guys in there,” senior guard Aaron Craft said after the Nebraska loss. “We have to figure this out. I think we will, but sooner rather than later, hopefully. I think we’re capable. If we wanted no one else to believe in us, I think we’re at that point. It’s 12 guys on the team, six coaches, one athletic trainer – that’s all we’ve got right now.”

4 A. Craft SR 6-2/195 9.2 3.4 4.9 G 13 T. Abrams JR 6-2/190 12.8 3.9 3.4
3 S. Scott JR 6-1/185 7.7 4.0 3.8 G 24 R. Rice JR 6-4/235 17.4 5.9 1.8
32 L. Smith Jr. SR 6-4/210 11.9 4.9 1.5 G 2 J. Bertrand SR 6-6/200 10.6 5.5 0.8
10 L. Ross JR 6-8/220 13.9 5.7 0.8 F 33 J. Ekey SR 6-7/225 8.0 5.8 0.2
23 A. Williams JR 6-11/250 9.0 6.4 0.4 C 32 N. Egwu JR 6-11/250 6.8 5.4 0.3

Opponent Breakdown

As the former lead deputy for Thad Matta, Illinois head coach John Groce knows a thing or two about winning. That streak of success continued when he became a head coach at Ohio University and followed him again when he crashed the Big Ten party at Illinois. But for now, Groce, like Matta, is mired in a four-game losing streak.

The two frustrated coaches have used many of the same adjectives to describe their teams’ recent woes, though Groce has always been more animated. In traveling to Columbus, he knows Thursday’s game could be a season-defining result. 

“The biggest thing for us right now is trying to get back to where we’re playing with some consistency,” Groce said. “I thought over the course of the last two weeks we’ve done some things well and some things not so well. I think for us that starts on the defensive end, in particular in rebounding. Those two areas have been consistent for us previously.”

The Illini have four players who average more than five rebounds per game, but none average six. During their four-game losing streak, opponents have outrebounded them by 13. Similar to the Buckeyes, Illinois’ defense has also taken a considerable hit. Wisconsin and Michigan State each shot better than 55 percent after the Illini limited opponents under 40 percent for the season.

A four-day break could be the right elixir for the struggling club.

“We’re looking forward to getting back out,” Groce said. “The biggest thing is getting the guys’ minds and bodies back.”

Illinois starts all upperclassmen, with Rayvonte Rice’s 17 points per game leading the way. There’s been an influx of youth, though, in recent weeks. Three freshmen – Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Kendrick Nunn – received increased minutes. The playing time has been justified by production.

Groce points to depth and growth as the catalysts for the youngsters rise.

“The reason they’re playing more is because they’ve earned it,” he said. “They’ve continued to evolve in the roles we’ve given them. They’ve been more consistent with what they bring to the table. That's a good thing for our team.”

What isn’t good is a less-than-100-percent Rice, which is a possibility. He was injured against Northwestern, a game the Illini lost and shot less 30 percent. He’s been limited in games and practice with a muscle strain.

Despite the downward trend, Groce continues to take a levelheaded approach, much like his mentor.

“They’ve been positive. They’ve led well. They’ve done a great job,” he said. “I have no problem with their effort, their attitude, their toughness. They’ve done some things really well. We just have to make a few more plays here and there.”

Buckeye Breakdown

You can pour over the stats for hours. Ohio State’s four-game losing streak, its first in six seasons, reveals many head-scratching themes – opponents dominating the paint, horrendous assist-to-turnover ratio for point guards, wilting down the stretch. But perhaps the biggest issue the Buckeyes face is an inability to put the ball in the hoop.

In the past two losses, Ohio State’s shot less than 40 percent, missing layups and open jump shots with regularity. The starters in particular are where the gory stats present such a surprise.

The rosy cheeks have become red with frustration. Aaron Craft's turnovers have been uncharacteristic.

“Early in the year when we were playing the best basketball we could, we had multiple guys kind of doing their job and putting the ball in the bucket,” senior guard Aaron Craft said. “It really relieved a lot of stress and a lot of pressure off the other guys.”

The pressure now exists for everyone on the team. When points dry up and confidence heads south, an entire roster can become tight. There were several possessions late in the Nebraska game where the basketball was passed around like a hot potato. Even LaQuinton Ross, who’s never shy to take a shot, gave up multiple open looks.

Thad Matta’s always chimed in on his practices, saying no team in the country shoots more than Ohio State. That might be true, but clearly there’s a breakdown somewhere along the way from the practice gym to the game court. 

“For some reason, we’re not playing with very much confidence and that shows when we get into games and we miss a shot or two and you don’t want to shoot the next one,” Craft said.

During the four-game skid:

  • Craft has 19 turnovers.
  • Shannon Scott is averaging four points per game and has converted just one his nine three-point attempts after shooting 32 percent the first 15 games.
  • Lenzelle Smith Jr.’s averages have plummeted, from 12.7 points per game and 39 percent from 3 to 8.7 points and 24 percent.
  • The same goes for Amir Williams' 9.7 points and 6.5 rebounds during a 15-0 start. Now he’s contributing 6.5 points and five rebounds per game.

The vaunted defense also has taken a hit. All four teams who’ve defeated Ohio State have shot better than 45 percent and two of them shot 50 percent. On the season, the Buckeyes are turning the ball over nearly 12 times per game, a number that’s spiked during the losing streak.

When Matta was asked following the Nebraska game to rattle off the problems, he quipped, “How much time do we have?” Ohio State has no time when it comes to correcting its issues. The Big Ten doesn’t come with a grace period.

“You have to respect this league and know that it’s hard,” Matta said. “We need consistency. When we play ourselves back into it, when something doesn’t go well, I think the thing I see the most is we’re not able to answer the call. We’ve got to have some mental toughness to make the next play. Right now, we’re clinging on the mistakes. You’ve got to play forward.”

Yet another opportunity to end the long losing streak comes tonight.


  • Thad Matta is 12-5 vs. Illinois as Ohio State's head coach.
  • Joe Tessitore and Sean Farnham have the call on ESPN.
  • Aaron Craft is averaging 10.8 points per game against the Illini in his career.

Comments Show All Comments

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I'm ready to celebrate a win tonight.  Hope to see the guys break the slump and look more like a team.

Read my entire screen name....

daveyt11's picture

Agreed...OSU 65 Illinois 57...or something like it.

BoFuquel's picture


I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

Bamabucknut's picture

Rumors of a starting lineup change abound, as Matta tries to unlock a combination that can win.

buckifishr's picture

I have my fingers crossed.  But not sure who to put into the starting lineup that is going to make a huge impact.

daveyt11's picture

Maybe go with Loving over Lenzelle? other than that, not sure.

thePhilipJFry's picture

That would be my choice. 
Thompson over Lenzelle would be a decent choice as well, or Amedeo Della Valle over Lenzelle. 
He could also do a big shake up and bring in Loving and Thompson for Scott and Lenzelle.  Splitting up Craft and Scott would take the offense down to one non shooting point guard who needs to get points off the dribble at a time. 
My fear is, given Amir Williams recent decrease in playing time, is that it will be to either go small with no center (which would make the opponents 2pt% higher) or be McDonald over Williams (which would take the starters points/pos from 0.98 to 0.94).

vitaminB's picture

This.  I never understood why you would play Craft and Scott together.  I'm tired of watching them pass the ball back and forth between each other daring the other to take the shot.

OSUFlash's picture

Nebraska was supposed to be the perfect opponent to get back on track after beating them by 31 points 2 weeks ago. I'm hoping for a win even an ugly win but fear we'll see more of the same.
There's no doubt the wheels will start to fall off at some point in tonights game and how the team reacts will be the deciding factor. If nobody can step up and stop the bleeding tonight I don't see this team winning another game the rest of the way.


BuckeyeTennis91's picture

I think the starting lineup that they've had should stay as is. Just start making shots (you know they will at some point) and the wins will come.


Stormy9969's picture

Press them early and test their guards ball handling and decision making ability and weave in a change of defense occasionally (2-3/matching Zone).  We have to rebound effectively too. 
Offensively we need to take the open shot when it is there.  All too often we try to penetrate then dish to the wings but teams have been successful at cutting off the passing lanes.  Maybe we need to do more shooting and crash the offensive glass instead. 
Go Bucks! 

Colonel "Storm" Peterson

Zimmy07's picture

I don't know if I can handle another loss.  I'm still getting over losing to Nebraska.

GrayDay's picture

Matta is getting a lot of heat, but I still think he's a great coach and has his finger on their biggest problem: a lack of mental toughness at the moment.  Lots of HOF coaches have tough stretches, it comes with building a strong team out of young talent.  They are being tested right now and just need to settle down, get back to playing disciplined team defense (which they can very well) and the offense confidence will return as they build confidence in each other again.  Good luck, Bucks!

Nutinpa's picture

I think you make a great point. 
But....or and......there are other reasons why Matta may be getting some heat:
1. While acknowledging that the loss of Gent hurt, there has been arguably no improvement on offense for Craft, Scott or LSJ in 3 seasons.  That is hard to fathom as we are not talking about one guy, but three.  While Amir has improved, he is still not playing at a competitive B1G level as a big man. McDonald plays with heart but skills are sorely lacking. Again....a questionable level of player skill development.  I think it is fair to call those issues out as facts. 
2. The body language of the players during the NEB game was concerning. Am not suggesting they "quit"....and I agree there was not much to be excited about with all the brick laying that was going on.  But even the broadcasters noticed a lack of team chemistry or enthusiasm. 
Tonight will be telling on several levels. 

Buckeye Scottie's picture

Gent?  You mean Jent, right? No disrespect but I have to question your fandom (maybe you are just too young, kids these days) to not know Chris Jent, the original Aaron Craft.  Pure scrapper, all heart


lax20's picture

This game could make or break the Bucks.  Illinois is reeling just like Nebraska, but this is a home game.  I made comments in the past of Matta's ability to coach and must make a confession.  He is an excellent defensive master of the game, but his teams have lacked offensive power with the exception of the players that arrived as pure shooters, Diebler, Buford, Thomas and Sullingers wide body inside game.  I cannot remember a big man under Matta that was dominating on the offensive side of the court with the exception of Sullinger and Oden which is a stretch.  When their defensive prowess has failed them, they have struggled mightily and quite often settled for the jump shot that seem to never fall.  I hope tonight the ship gets righted and they can move forward after getting this monkey off their back.

vitaminB's picture

I would tend to agree, but we've seen those shooters get better and better under Matta's tutelage.  I think the big loss is Chris Jent going to Sacramento and being replaced by Paulus who wasn't known for his shooting touch.

NitroBuck's picture

Lax20, Terence Dials was B1G POY under Matta, and Kosta Koufos could light it up in his one-n-done season.  Obviously, Oden and Sullinger were not the only strong scoring big men during Matta's tenure.  Seems to me that Thad has had a strong scoring big man for 6 of his 10 seasons.

Ferio.  Tego.

GrayDay's picture

This is a good point.  For whatever reason its just not clicking for Amir and its a huge problem.  This team really needs to move the ball a lot and go inside both for scoring there and to open rhythm shots on the outside.  Yet ball handling by the bigs in traffic, including Ross, I think causes Craft and Scott to press and do it on their own with no help.  On defense, they desperately need the bigs to at least be disruptive.  Amir seems like nice guy, but often fells like playing 4 on 5 when he's out there.

NitroBuck's picture

One observation regarding Amir Williams:  Some people are hard on him with respect to his defense, yet the lack of interior defense becomes a glaring problem anytime he steps off the court.  What is really missing is a solid defensive guy like Evan Ravenel to back him up.  Also, lets not fool ourselves into thinking that the interior defense was all that special before Williams became starter.  I love Sullinger, but there was a lot of Ole' defense when he was on the floor.  In his case, there was good reason for it, as Sully avoided a lot of dumb fouls when he was beat.  But he did get caught out of position a lot.  Amir Williams is probably the better defender of the two.

Ferio.  Tego.

ibuck's picture

I am concerned about Matta's willingness to recruit 13 schollie players, and then play them.  Reportedly, he said, "And there's nothing worse as a coach than you look down at the end of the bench and guys 11, 12 and 13 are looking at you (bored) like this during the game." 
Don't know if that's on the players for not being engaged, or on Matta not willing to bring in, develop and play 10 or more players. Or maybe the quote is just out of context. We should find out next year.

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

vitaminB's picture

I think he's played a lot more guys this year than in the past, or maybe it just seems like that.  It's hard to fill all 12 schollies with high quality talent.  Look at Duke, North Carolina, etc, they always have those equipment manager looking dudes on the end of the bench too.

hspbuy1's picture

I've noticed this team gets complacent early & then catch on fire after falling way to far behind ,let's play like we're down 10 right at the get go! I know, it sounds good,but..................? keep fresh legs,run & gun, rip that zone apart,keep that bench rotatin'! Press Press Press!


Go1Bucks's picture

CBJ up 3-2, as long as Im not watching , they score.

Go Bucks!

Go1Bucks's picture

they all assumed ross was gonna make it again, no rebounders

Go Bucks!