Ohio State opened its conference season at home Tuesday in an underwhelming performance against Iowa. After Ohio State's 71-65 loss, it's back to the drawing board for coach Thad Matta as the Buckeyes face Illinois Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Columbus.
The Buckeyes rolled over most of its lesser competition in the non-conference, but they have struggled to match the physicality and toughness when they've played top teams in the country.
Matta said Friday that he would rank his team at "about a five" on the toughness scale from 1-10.
"I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see," Matta said. "It's extra effort. It's extraordinary plays. It's doing two things at once."
Ohio State (11-3, 0-1) has struggled to rebound out of its new-look zone defense that has been the subject of much criticism. The Buckeyes are turning their opponents over at a high rate, averaging 9.1 steals per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten. However, Ohio State has lacked the ability to hold its opponents to one shot in big situations and often is getting manhandled on the defense boards.
The Buckeyes were out rebounded, 37-29, against Iowa in the Big Ten opener and Matta said he's thought about changing up the defense, but he doesn't believe the style of defense would have changed much against the Hawkeyes.
"Just the way we came out was not going to be good enough," Matta said. "To give up 17 points in the first four minutes, we weren't dialed in the way we needed to be dialed in."
The most frightening thing for Matta might be the fact that his star freshman D'Angelo Russell has been wavering in games against top competition early in the season. Russell shot just 4-of-16 from the field Tuesday afternoon and struggled mightily against Iowa's length on the perimeter.
Illinois (10-4, 0-1) brings much of the same problems for Russell and the Buckeyes as far as length goes. Guards Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill lead the Illini in points and rebounds on the season and Rice uses his long arms on the perimeter to snag almost two steals per game.
Russell is young and still learning how to compete with elite athletes on a day-to-day basis, but he has to carry the scoring load for an Ohio State team that often becomes stagnant against good defenses.
"D'Angelo has spent a lot of time here in the last couple of days in the gym," Matta said about Russell's game preparation. "We're working shot preparation into it, and more of an overall focus. He's aware of what he needs to do to help us."
Ohio State held Rice in check a season ago, holding the now-senior guard scoreless when the two teams met in Columbus. It will take another team effort on the wings to make sure Rice doesn't live up to his season average of 17.0 points per game.
Senior forward Sam Thompson said the Buckeyes are looking forward to getting back on the court Saturday in a game Ohio State needs to have.
"Our confidence isn't shaken. We're still very confident in the team that we can be," Thompson said. "We still know that if we eliminate one of the mistakes we made in our three losses, we're still one of the best teams in the country.
"Right now our mindset is come out and do whatever we need to do to get this next win, because for us it's a must-win game."
Numbers To Know
Despite the loss to open the Big Ten season, Ohio State still remains fourth in the country in field goal percentage. The Buckeyes must continue to get easy shots from their ball movement and in transition, because they remain a very mediocre team offensively in the half court.
Ohio State has done a tremendous job at turning its opponents over in the 2014-15 season. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten in turnover margin at a +6.3. If this trend continues, Ohio State will end up winning some of these close conference games that are on the horizon.
Illinois leads the Big Ten in team fee-throw percentage, shooting at a .777 clip. If the game is close late, it will be tough to make a comeback with Illinois' ability to ice games away at the line.
Cast of Characters:
Thompson said after Ohio State's loss to Iowa that the seniors needed to lead the team better. Look for Thompson to step up as a verbal leader of the team and be more assertive on offense if the Buckeye start to struggle against Illinois on Saturday.
Loving might be the most improved player in the Big Ten this season. He's turned himself into a high-energy player and is shooting 54.9 percent from beyond the three-point line. Without his shooting, the Buckeyes could easily have been blown away in their three losses.
Rayvonte Rice might be Illinois' best player, but Malcolm Hill has been its most impressive. Hill's length on defense and his ability to hit the midrange shot has been the most consistent part of the Illini's game this season. Look for Hill to camp out in the middle of the Ohio State zone and score from 15-20 feet all afternoon.
Egwu could end up being a huge X-factor in Saturday's matchup. The 6-foot-11 center is Illinois' best rim protector and averages nearly two blocks per game. Ohio State's big men have struggled with length all season and Egwu could do a great job of altering shots against the Buckeyes and forcing them to the perimeter.
How to Watch/Stream:
TV: 3:30 p.m., ESPN2 (Channel 1302 on Time Warner Columbus/Delaware)
Radio: 97.1 The Fan