In recent seasons, winning on the road in the Big Ten has been one of the toughest challenges in all of sports. Coming to an agreement with your in-laws is simpler. But as parity arrived in the conference, so too did the ability to win away from home arenas.
Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois – four of the biggest home-court advantages in the country – have all proven to be vulnerable in front of the locals. The Buckeyes have lost three home games, their most in six years. The Badgers lost three consecutive games in the Kohl Center, the longest losing streak in Madison since 1997.
|Illinois (14-11, 3-9)||Assembly Hall||8:00 p.m.||BTN|
Thad Matta still prefers Value City Arena to, say, Assembly Hall. But his team realizes the clutch shots haven’t always come in Columbus this season.
“I can’t really figure it out,” junior forward Sam Thompson said, “but we have a different way about us on the road in crunch time. When we need that stop, when we need that bucket, we’ve shown that we’re capable of doing it. We’ve done it multiple times this year. It’s just about getting it done every time we step out on to the floor.”
One place Ohio State hasn’t experienced a win the past two seasons – Thompson’s career to date – is Illinois. The Land of Lincoln native doesn’t even try to fake it, he came right out and said Assembly Hall isn’t a warm, fuzzy site that brings back good memories.
“It’s a very unspecial arena for me. I’ve never won at Assembly Hall,” Thompson said.
If trends continue, that blemish will clear up.
Three weeks after the first meeting between these schools, there’s once again an “Anything you can do, I can do it worse” cloud hanging overhead. Ohio State’s lost six of 10, but Illinois can top them by a long margin. The Fighting Illini are in the midst of a 1-9 stretch. Prior to that, they were 13-2.
An eight-game losing streak ended last week against Penn State, but Illinois promptly went out and lost its next contest, at Nebraska. It looked like a lineup change could be the answer until the offense failed to show up in Lincoln.
In the 67-58 loss, the Illini shot just 36.7 percent from the field and a woeful 23.5 percent from long range. They even struggled with freebies, connecting on less than 70 percent from the free throw line.
“It’s real frustrating,” junior center Nnanna Egwu said this week. “Not just now, but it has happened throughout this losing run. We're always just right there. Sometimes that hurts even worse. To be honest, a little change here, a little change there, we’d have a whole different record.”
But the story reads that Illinois is 14-11 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten, stunning numbers for a proud program that’s built a winning tradition. Last place in the conference doesn’t sit well with anyone, especially fiery head coach John Groce.
Seven of the Illini’s 11 losses have come by fewer than 10 points and remaining on the schedule are games with four ranked opponents, including Saturday’s game versus the Buckeyes.
Groce recently compared his team to one-hit wonders in the music scene. His goal is to break this year’s group out of its current funk and not just be a team that had a good season last year and winning half-season in 2013-14. If Illinois is to start winning consistently again, it must score and defend with that same reliability.
Multiple double-digit scorers have been rare, while Nebraska had two players combine for 49 points and they shot 44 percent as a team.
“We take pride in limiting opponents to what they normally get and get them where we want to get them,” Egwu said. “It was a surprise for us to give them too many easy baskets and too many easy looks, and we fouled them too much. Our defense was not built like that.”
The biggest issue currently plaguing the offense is the disappearance of junior point guard Tracy Abrams. He’s scored 10 points in only one of the past six games. On the season, he’s shooting a paltry 34.9 percent, the lowest of his career. He’s only making one of four three-pointers. In his past seven games, Abrams is barely shooting 20 percent. His last field goal of any kind that he made came on Feb. 4.
“Sometimes shooting is fleeting,” Groce said. “You can’t control that. What you can control is taking care of the ball a little better, defending the ball probably a little better. I’m not as concerned about his shot.”
After each Ohio State loss, the game is scrutinized down to the minute by media, fans and coaches. Everyone always looks for that reason, one thing that stands out above all others.
Throughout a 10-game stretch that’s included six losses, both offense and defense have become the Buckeyes’ nemesis at times. On Tuesday night, it was rebounding. Ohio State was embarrassed on both ends of the court, being outrebounded by Michigan 39-27 overall and 14-8 on the offensive glass. It allowed the Wolverines to score 11 second-chance points and gave them extra possessions that tired the Buckeyes.
On three straight possessions in the second half, Michigan came up with an offensive rebound, turning a one-point advantage into an insurmountable six-point lead.
“At the end of the day they just wanted it more,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross said. “When you go back and look at the film, I’m sure we probably missed a lot of boxouts, and we knew coming into the game they were going to try get offensive rebounds. They’re not that big of a team, so we can’t blame it on that. But I think at the end of the day, we probably missed a lot of assignments, so we have to be tougher on that part.”
Ross’ speech was littered with facts. For much of the night, Ohio State was out of position when trying to snare rebounds, it allowed the 298th ranked team in the country in offensive rebounds to abuse them – there are only 351 Division 1 teams – and a 6-foot-1 freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. left Value City Arena with 10 total rebounds. Michigan forward Jordan Morgan finished with six offensive rebounds, more total rebounds than every Buckeye save for Ross and Amir Williams, who each had seven.
“We’ve done a pretty good job [rebounding] the last few games,” senior point guard Aaron Craft said “They got them when they needed them, and they converted.”
When it travels to Illinois Saturday, Ohio State will face a team it was even against in the rebounding column three weeks ago, a game the Buckeyes won. They’ll also be fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives, at least that’s what Sam Thompson believes.
Ohio State’s just one win shy of 20 for the season, but the junior forward doesn’t believe the current resume is worthy of the Big Dance.
“We don’t feel that we’ve done enough to really put ourselves in a position where we can say if the season ended today, we’re hands down in the tournament,” Thompson. “It’s about sending a message every time we step out on the floor.”
Illinois – and the NCAA Tournament committee – will receive a memo Saturday night. The Buckeyes’ hope is it isn’t returned to sender.
- Ohio State, when ranked, is 14-2 in its past 16 games versus Illinois.
- The Buckeyes have won eight of the last 10 meetings in the series.
- Thad Matta is 13-5 all-time against the Fighting Illini.
In his career, Aaron Craft has averaged 10.9 points against Illinois, shooting nearly 50 percent (27-55).