Illinois ought to walk out of Assembly Hall kicking itself that it didn’t take out top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday.
Facing a balanced Buckeyes team with four scorers averaging at least 11.5 points per game, Illinois’ strategy to make Jared Sullinger win the game looked good for a long time. The Illini decided, for the most part, to play him man-to-man while making sure to cover up OSU’s 3-point shooters.
At 2:55 of the first half, Aaron Craft made a driving layup to give Ohio State a 33-26 lead. Over the next 11 minutes and 12 seconds, Illinois outscored the Buckeyes 24-9 as Sullinger was the only one to score for his side.
At that point, Sullinger had 20 points and 12 rebounds and his teammates had 22 points. Over the final 11:42, Sullinger scored just 7 points and his teammates combined for 24.
“No doubt, Ohio State is a very, very good team,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. “I even said it to our coaches at halftime: They’re better than I even thought on the outside. I think the best thing about them is they’re so unselfish. They know if something’s not going for one guy, they’re smart enough to get the ball to the guy that can make the basket.
“I said in the press conference the other day, I think (Michigan coach John) Beilein said the best thing about them: “They don’t care about their shot. They care about the best shot.”
Those words were both a compliment to the Buckeyes…and a dig at his Illini. During a stretch of the first half, Illinois’ players seemed determined to take low-percentage shots with guys right on them. And remember when the Illini were up 50-42 with the ball just before the 12-minute media timeout? Demetri McCamey jacked up a 28-footer with the shot clock running down.
That triggered a negative run where Brandon Paul missed a runner, Bill Cole missed a 3, Sullinger swatted Mike Davis out of bounds, McCamey missed a runner, D.J. Richardson missed a runner, Davis missed a 16-footer…and Ohio State reeled off 14 straight points to take command.
Many of those shots came when Ohio State started to overplay defensively and the Illini didn’t compensate by moving and cutting. Instead, they stood around and forced many of the shots listed above.
“I don’t think we’re selfish as a team, but we all try to hit home runs and grand slams,” Weber said.
“And there’s no one on base. Sometimes we don’t make the simple play.”
Illinois was at its best Saturday feeding Jereme Richmond around the basket. He delivered a career-high 18 points as all of his points came in the paint. Fellow freshman Meyers Leonard fed him twice on big-to-big passes and Mike Tisdale found him a time or two as well.
ISSUES GOING FORWARD
--Sophomore guard D.J. Richardson drilled a 3-pointer for Illinois’ first points. He missed his other 5 shots as he remains mired in a slump that’s not just about his shooting.
“He’s got to cut to get open shots,” Weber said. “And other people got to get him open. When he makes a cut, it’s got to be to score. And if you don’t get it, cut through the defense. I think he’s probably lost some confidence. He doesn’t cut as hard as he should. He doesn’t move without the ball like he should.”
Richardson drilled 5 of 7 3-pointers in the Big Ten opener at Iowa for a season-high 17 points. In the six Big Ten games since, Richardson has made 9 of 30 shots overall and 5 of 17 3-pointers. He provided a glimpse of what he can provide in the first half when he slashed to the hoop, drew a defender and dished to Mike Davis for a resounding slam.
--Richardson wasn’t the only one who didn’t move as much as necessary to defeat Ohio State’s overplaying defense. The Buckeyes noticed Illinois ranked third nationally in 3-point percentage (42.7) entering the game and didn’t want the Illini to get their usual looks. Illinois wound up hitting just 4 of 17 on 3s…tying the school’s worst effort of the year against UIC.
Illinois decided to play behind Jared Sullinger and do little double-teaming (except occasional post trapping) in hopes of limiting his passing and forcing him to put up shots over the taller Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Meyers Leonard.
Sullinger didn't shoot great from the field (7 of 15) and posted just 1 assist, but he drew oodles of fouls and wound up going 13 of 15 from the line.
"We didn't want to foul him," Weber said. "That was one of the big things we talked about: Don't foul him. He (flails). He goes in there and he just throws (his arms) and you've got to be...I told our guys you've got to give him a little space and just get your arms up because he's going to come at you. And you hope he doesn't get the call. But he's a good player. There's no doubt."
Illinois has several days to prepare for its next games, a trip to Indiana Thursday and a visit from Penn State on Feb. 1.
“We’ve got to move past this game,” said senior Mike Davis. “The next two games are the biggest games of the season to determine our season…We can’t have another lapse. If we have another lapse, we’re going to be a bubble team and we don’t want that to happen.”