Men's basketball: Buckeyes stop slide with defense, key shots

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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The week that was

Ohio State (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten) stopped its four-game losing streak by making plays at both ends against Illinois with the outcome on the line in the second half. It wasn’t “the prettiest game in the world,” Illinois coach John Groce noted, but it was a start. The Buckeyes won by forcing turnovers with defense, making shots at crucial moments and making free throws in the last three minutes. “To the kids’ credit, they had a different look in their eye down the stretch,” coach Thad Matta said.

The week ahead

The Buckeyes have a chance to climb back to .500 in the Big Ten on Wednesday before facing two daunting road tests in four days, against Wisconsin and Iowa. Penn State won for the first time in seven Big Ten games last week, at home against Nebraska, but has been competitive. Four of the Nittany Lions’ past five games have been decided by a total of 11 points; the other was a 13-point loss at Michigan. All that needs to be said about Wisconsin is Ohio State had better be ready. The Buckeyes weren’t last year and lost by 22 points. They have lost 10 of their past 11 games there, though the nucleus of this team won there two years ago.

How good are they?

We still are a ways from knowing because a seven-point victory at home over Illinois does not rebuild a reputation. Nor will a victory against Penn State at home. Where the Buckeyes are in the Big Ten pecking order will be better revealed by whether they are tougher and more sound in their execution in their upcoming road games than they were in their four-game slide. For now, they are tied for sixth in the conference but only a game behind fourth-place Wisconsin. Nationally, they fell seven spots in the Associated Press Top 25 this week, to No. 24, their lowest standing since January 2010.

Who’s/what’s hot?

The eight threes, half by Lenzelle Smith Jr., better-than-73-percent free-throw shooting and 54 percent accuracy from the field in the second half against Illinois were positive movements, but they, like a lot of things with this team, need to become the rule rather than random occurrence. Aaron Craft was more like his old self against the Fighting Illini with 11 points, five assists and two game-changing steals. LaQuinton Ross ranks sixth in Big Ten scoring (16.3-point average) in conference games but is the only Ohio State player averaging double figures.

Who’s/what’s not?

After three games in which they gave up 120 points in the paint, the Buckeyes limited Illinois to 22, but that might say more about the Illini than Ohio State. Through four weeks of conference play, the Buckeyes rank 10th in field-goal percentage defense (.447). None of Matta’s previous nine teams at Ohio State allowed opponents to shoot better than 42.4 percent from the field. Likewise, none of those teams shot below 46 percent until last year (45.1), and this one is shooting 43. Although the Buckeyes closed out Illinois by making 6 of 7 free throws, it’s not a given they will be that sharp every game. They have the third-highest percentage of free throws taken per possession among Big Ten teams but have made only 68.6 percent of them, which is 11th in the conference. Surest things at the line? Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Marc Loving.

Outside the lines

Dan Peters, an Ohio State assistant coach from 2004 to ’09, took a leave of absence in December from his job as Akron’s director of basketball operations after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He began chemotherapy last week to try to eradicate a tumor that doctors could not remove during surgery. Peters, 59, said he was given a 5 percent chance to survive. Akron is encouraging fans attending its home game against Ball State on Wednesday night to wear purple, the color associated with the fight against pancreatic cancer, and the first 3,000 fans in attendance will receive purple T-shirts with a “4 Pete’s Sake” logo on the front. Many coaches, including Ohio State’s, will wear logo pins on their suit lapels during games this week.

Quotable

“We’re not going to make every shot. It’s about playing through it and finding a way to make the next one, and we did that.” — Craft, after the Buckeyes nearly doubled their first-half field-goal percentage in the second half against Illinois

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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