Ohio State may have hoped that recognizing the football team would have provided an emotional spark for a basketball team that has struggled early on against good teams. They played a much better first half against Illinois, and once Illinois had their hot shooting cool down the second half, the Buckeyes were able to pick up a needed victory,
D'Angelo Russell led the Buckeyes after a big second half, with 22 points. Marc Loving added 13, as did Sam Thompson. RayVonte Rice led Illinois with 20, with only six of those points coming in the second half.
Illinois nailed eight threes in the first half, including four from Rayvonte Rice, who had 14 at the break, and thanks to some careless ballhanding by Ohio State (eight turnovers), they were still able to grab the customary first half lead that the Buckeyes have been spotting teams, leading by as many as eight before the margin. Thad Matta, probably after checking his twitter mentions, switched to man to man defense late in the first half that paced a 10-1 Buckeye lead, allowing them to grab the lead, before a late bucket gave Illinois a 37-36 lead at the break.
The Buckeyes continued to struggle with both turnovers and perimeter defense to open the second half, but thanks to hustle, timely shooting, were still able to climb back into the game. Marc Loving drew a flagrant foul at the 13 minute mark, adding a free throw and a hookshot to help give the Buckeyes a 49-44 lead. The Buckeyes pushed that thanks to a 21-2 run, ballooning to 62-46. Once Russell started to heat up after a touch and go second half, Ohio State was able to build the margin they wouldn't relinquish, thanks to a flood of Illinois turnovers. Illinois would finish 20 turnovers, and hit only a single threeball in the second half.
Three things we learned:
1) The young guns bringing energy. We're used to seeing Ohio State super-freshman D'Angleo Russell take the primary scoring load, and even sometimes the playmaking load. That didn't change today, as Russell lead the Buckeyes with nine first half points, but Ohio State started to close the deficit thanks to the energy and play of their other two freshman, Jae'Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop. Tate relentlessly attacked the basket, pouring in seven big points and a steal, while Bates-Diop nailed a three and grabbed some big rebounds over the first half. These two still have a lot to learn, perhaps evident by their lack of minutes in the second half, but their passion and energy helped keep Ohio State in the game during the first half before Ohio State vets and Russell could push things to the next level.
2) It doesn't matter how well you shoot the ball if you keep turning it over. Forcing turnovers and getting out in transition is supposed to be Ohio State's game, and they've done that pretty well this season. But in order for that to work, you have to avoid turnovers yourself, and the Buckeyes didn't. Ohio State had nine first half turnovers, leading to 16 Illinois points (Ohio State scored 11 off turnovers themselves), the difference in a closely contested game. D'Angelo Russel had five, compared to only a single assist. Then Ohio State started the second half with three more turnovers, before taking care of the ball and going back to forcing Illinois to cough it up. Ohio State needs to play controlled and disciplined. This team doesn't have the offensive firepower to make up for mistakes like that.
3) Perhaps the Man to Man will stick around a little. Few things, outside of Ohio State's nonconference schedule and the play of Amir Williams (who was not good today) inspired more Buckeye Twitter chagrin than Ohio State's zone defense. Ohio State switched to man-to-man to close out the first half, leading to a Buckeye run, and kept it going in the second half, leading to a 12-0 run. Amir Williams may be exposed no matter where he is on the floor, but it may be a tool that's used more and more often to help Ohio State's rebounding and to give them a boost. The Buckeyes were still able to force turnovers out of the man to man.