Do you guys remember the old children's book Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Basically, this Alexander guy wakes up and the whole world dumps on him. He gets gum stuck in his hair, he trips on a skateboard, his teacher thinks his drawings suck, and the straw breaks inside his Capri Sun or something. It's like the Book of Job for second graders.
The Ohio State/Illinois game was Thad Matta's Terrible No Good Very Bad Day. Ohio State turned the ball over, struggled to find good shots, let Illinois score inside in transition; you name it, the Buckeyes didn't do it very well, and that let #11 Illinois get a surprisingly easy victory at home. You could be forgiven if you thought the Bucks would lose the game, since Champaign is such a difficult place to play, but nobody expected it to be such a blowout.
Ohio State turned the ball over on their first two possessions, setting the tone for a first half that the Buckeyes would never lead. Tracy Abrams scored 5 points in the game's first 3 minutes to give the Illini an early 9-3 lead. Lenzelle Smith Jr countered with a threeball to pull within 9-6, but the Bucks would get no closer.
After another Lenzelle three pulled the margin to 13-9, Brandon Paul ignited the run that would help Illinois pull away. The Illini relentlessly attacked in transition, finding Tyler Griffey for alley-oops and forcing the Buckeyes to cough up the ball on the other end. What looked like an old-fashioned Big Ten slobber knocker suddenly opened up as Illinois used a 12-2 run to take a 25-11 first half lead.
Illinois finished the first half leading 37-25. Normally careful with the basketball, Ohio State had 11 TOs in the first half, and shot a measly 33% from the field. Deshaun Thomas, the leading scorer in the Big Ten and the heart and soul of the Ohio State offensive attack, shot only 3-10 from the field, with one of those being a breakaway dunk. Thomas and Lenzelle Smith had 8 points each at halftime. Illinois shot 50% from the floor, even though they were an uncharacteristic 3-15 from three point range, and didn't get to the free throw line once the entire half. If the Illini hit a few more three pointers, Ohio State would have been blown out even earlier, but down only 12, the Bucks entered halftime with a chance to climb back into the game.
Such hopes were promptly extinguished. Ohio State opened the second half shooting 1-10 from the floor, and Illinois jumped to an 8-0 run to put the game out of reach, punctuated by a Brandon Paul three pointer that was so deep it might have come out of Naperville. Paul would finish 19 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists to lead a balanced Illini attack. Four Illini reached double figures, and DJ Richardson had 9.
Prior to the Ohio State game, Illinois had the reputation of being a perimeter-orientated team that could be bullied around a little inside, and might struggle to score if their threes weren't falling. While nobody on Illinois is likely to be confused with Karl Malone in the near future, the Illini did a great job of addressing their weaknesses down low. They actually outrebounded Ohio State, and continuously found baskets inside in transition, as well as in the half court. Tracy Abrams had 6 boards to go with his 13 points and 5 dimes, doing a little of everything to help the Illini succeed.
Amir Williams led the Buckeyes with 6 boards, but was held without a block. Flyin' Sam Thompson was held to a single point and 2 assists, missing all of his shots from the floor and depriving the Internet of another signature GIF. Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes in scoring with 24, but needed 21 shots to get there after his rough first half. Aaron Craft had 11 as the only other Buckeye in double figures (along with flashes of his more typical stout defense). Ohio State shot 21% from three point range, turned the ball over 16 times, and only shot 33% from the field. With those kinds of numbers, winning against good teams on the road in the Big Ten is impossible, and you'll struggle to even come close.
The question now, among the Buckeye faithful, is whether to panic or not. Once Thomas was taken out of the picture offensively, the Buckeyes struggled to score. Ohio State struggled uncharacteristically in several other facets though, turning the ball over at an exceptional rate, not playing strong perimeter defense, or holding teams to second shot opportunities. The question is whether this was an aberration from a typical Matta-era squad that we haven't seen in years, or a sign of things to come.
I personally feel comfortable that the truth lies somewhere in between. The Buckeyes certainly aren't as good as their preseason top 5 ranking indicated, and are probably not even a top 15 team right now. Given the talent on the roster, particularly defensively, and how hard it will be for other teams to win in Columbus, seeing this team lose eight Big Ten games and struggle to make the tournament seems far fetched as well.
We'll have plenty of time to discuss the implications. For now, Thad Matta will have to try for Big Ten win #100 another game, and the Bucks will have to tinker with their rotations and game plan. Groce and Illinois have an excellent win to help build their confidence for the tough road ahead. They may have looked like the '96 Bulls today, but this squad also lost to Purdue the game before. Fortunes can change quickly in the Big Ten.
At the end of Alexander's Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Alexander learns that sometimes, things just don't go your way, but there is always tomorrow. Ohio State would do well to remember that. Even great teams sometimes have matchups where nothing goes their way. Hopefully, it won't be a habit this season.
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