The week that was
The loss to Michigan was the Buckeyes’ third at home in Big Ten play, the most they’ve had in a conference season in Thad Matta’s 10 years as coach. With Michigan and Michigan State suffering upset losses on Sunday at home, it also cost the Buckeyes a chance to move two games behind the conference co-leaders with five to play. At Illinois, the bench provided a huge lift, scoring all the points in a decisive 12-0 run midway through the second half. Ohio State’s 48 points were its fewest in a win since a 47-39 win over Coppin State on Dec.10, 2007. The victory gave Matta 14 straight 20-win seasons as a coach.
The week ahead
In any year except this one, Buckeyes fans could look at home games against Northwestern and Minnesota and chalk up two wins. But this is not any year. Northwestern has wins at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers returned the favor on Sunday night at Northwestern. They also beat the Buckeyes by 10 points a month ago in Minneapolis. Road teams in the Big Ten are winning at a 47.1 percent pace and since Jan. 25 are above .500 (22-18). Since the conference returned to an 18-game schedule in 2008, road teams have won 40 percent of games in a season only once (41.4 in 2010). Stand on your head if you want to make sense of this league.
How good are they?
The 10-point loss to Michigan and nine-point win at Illinois were worth a loss of two spots in the AP top 25. The Buckeyes fell to No. 24 this week, the last of five Big Ten teams in the rankings, none of which is in the top 10 as the Big Ten continues to eat its own in the race to March Madness. An NCAA tournament mock selection by a panel of media in Indianapolis last week gave Ohio State a No. 5 seed on the tournament bracket. In the Big Ten, meanwhile, the Buckeyes stand one game behind Wisconsin for the fourth and final first-round bye in the conference tournament. They haven’t had to play on the first day of the tournament since 2005, Matta’s first season.
No one stays hot for long in the Big Ten, but the best thing Ohio State continues to have going for it is its defense. It got stretched and taken advantage of by Michigan in the second half, but through 13 conference games the Buckeyes are forcing more turnovers and holding opponents to fewer points per possession than any other conference team. Illinois’ 28.3 percent shooting from the field was the worst by a Big Ten team against Ohio State since the Illini, also on their home court, shot 24.1 percent in a 62-44 loss in January 2007. Shannon Scott’s five steals against Illinois were one off his career high. He ranks ninth nationally in steal percentage, and he has better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio the past eight games. The Buckeyes can only hope that Marc Loving’s eight-point burst to cap the second-half rally at Illinois was a sign of more to come for an offense that lacks reliable scoring.
It was noted last week that Ohio State had done a decent job to date of covering up its rebounding deficiency, but second-chance points were a factor in Michigan taking control in the second half, and Illinois scored a quick five off offensive rebounds before Matta blew up on Amir Williams midway through the first half and the Buckeyes got it under control. Williams played only six minutes in the second half while his backup, Trey McDonald, played 13. Aaron Craft has regained his aggressiveness with the ball in his hands the past four games, but with that comes more turnovers — as many (14) in that span as assists, and more than a third of the team’s 39. The Buckeyes, 10th in Big Ten free throw percentage, missed four straight, including the front ends of two one-and-ones, that almost proved costly as Illinois cut a 12-point deficit to five in the final two minutes.
Outside the lines
Pickerington Central senior Jae’Sean Tate, who signed with Ohio State in November, is scheduled for surgery on Friday to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He told ThisWeek Community News that he suffered the injury in May but hoped to be able to play through it because it was not painful. He finally relented so he will be fully healthy for his freshman season with the Buckeyes. “He felt awful because of the high-school season, and he feels he’s letting people down,” Matta said. “But for his long-term success, it’s something that needs to be done as quickly as it can be.” Tate was averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 rebounds for Central.
“Now that we no longer control our destiny, we have to play for another cause. … We don’t feel we’ve done enough to really put ourselves in (the NCAA tournament). So we want to get to the tournament, we don’t want to play Thursday in the Big Ten tournament, and we obviously want to win the Big Ten tournament.” — Sam Thompson, on the team’s focus changing after the loss to Michigan.