The Illini showed something despite falling short. The loss to Michigan left John Groce with a bad taste in his mouth about his team's toughness and effort. While Sunday's trip to Columbus provided the same result in the win-loss column, Illinois looked like a completely different group with how they battled to the finish. The Illini were tough on the defensive end. They made effort plays. And they had answers offensively when Ohio State tried to pull away. Unfortunately, they were just one answer short. The Buckeyes were up five with just 12 seconds left, but Jalen Coleman-Lands and Malcolm Hill made a pair of threes in a five-second span to keep hope alive. Illinois was down 74-73 with less than two ticks left on the clock when they fouled Marc Loving, who made one free throw and missed the second. Hill grabbed the rebound and put up a prayer - only to miss one foot to the left. Moral victories don't carry much weight for the fan base with Groce in Year Four of his tenure. But the Illini looked like a competent and competitive basketball team on the road in the Big Ten. Groce called it a "great step" in the right direction. Given the circumstances with an injury-stricken roster and how certain elements played out in this game, it's hard to argue against Sunday being a sign of improvement. Of course, that is only momentary. The Illini have to find a way to win games, and they're in danger of starting 0-4 in the Big Ten and dipping below .500 overall if they can't win at Michigan State or at home against Purdue.
Free throw differential was the difference maker. It was difficult for Groce to describe why his team put the Buckeyes at the line as much as they did. He noted that the Illini were 11th in the country in free throw attempts allowed heading into this game. It was obvious that he didn't necessarily agree with the way the game was called, and Groce said he'd need to watch the film to get a better understanding. As it stood, Ohio State shot 39 free throws compared to 11 for the Illini. The Buckeyes made 28 of those attempts, and that proved to be the difference in the game. Even when Illinois played their best defensive half of the season in the first half - limiting Ohio State to just eight field goals - the Buckeyes held a 30-26 lead at halftime by going 13-of-15 from the line. Meanwhile, the Illini shot just three free throws in the first half. As a jump-shooting team, the Illini don't typically get to the line at a high frequency. But they have been able to defend without fouling. That wasn't the case on Sunday, though. Right or wrong, it was a burden too steep for the Orange and Blue to overcome.
Costly foul occurred down the stretch. The late-game bombs by the Illini kept them in it until the final buzzer. But an ill-timed foul, which was called correctly, made things more difficult than they had to be. JaQuan Lyle's presence in the second half was big for the Ohio State offense. He sat the final 18 minutes in the first half with two fouls. But in the second half, he totaled 14 points and five assists. After a pair of free throws by Hill put the Illini within two, Lyle had the ball in his hands under one minute to play with the shot clock winding down. Alex Austin, who has been labelled as Illinois' best perimeter defender, was guarding Lyle one-on-one. But Austin got beat off the dribble and reached in for a foul with just six ticks left on the shot clock. Lyle hit both free throws to make it a two-possession game with 47 seconds remaining. If Austin could have stayed in front and forced a tough shot, the Illini could have had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Illini need Hill to find his stroke. Illinois had a balanced offensive attack with four players scoring 14 points each: Hill, Coleman-Lands, Kendrick Nunn and Michael Finke. Hill posted a respectable stat line with those 14 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes. He also upped his defense and made things difficult on Jae'Sean Tate (6 points). But the Illini desperately need Hill to return to form at the offensive end. Coming into Big Ten play, he was the top scorer in the conference and he had scored 20-plus points in four straight games. But Hill was just 4-of-13 from the field on Sunday, and he is 7-of-24 (29.2 percent) overall through two crucial conference games. The Illini were able to combat Hill's shooting struggles much better this time around. That being said, they still need him to be great if they want to beat good teams in the Big Ten. It was a good sign that Hill did not let missed jumpers prevent him from making plays in other areas. And he's too good of a scorer to let his shooting slump go on for long. With the upcoming schedule, the Illini need him to get it corrected sooner rather than later.
Groce & his staff had a good game plan. The Illini coaches have taken their fair share of criticism this season. That's what happens when expectations aren't being met - even through adverse circumstances. The fan base has directed blame at Groce for one thing or another: Halftime adjustments, rotation decisions, lack of progression, recruiting misses and more of the like. Each set of eyes forms their own opinion. On Sunday, it was apparent that Groce had his team ready to play. They played with energy and heart. They pressured the ball and pushed the tempo the other way. They spaced the floor and got open looks. Some went in and some didn't, but that's the Catch-22 of being a jump-shooting team. Of course, that is mostly dictated by the current personnel. Groce also did a good job of switching to zone late in the second half to create some stops. Ultimately, there were some zone breakdowns at the end but the point remains the same. And that point is that even with a size disadvantage, lopsided free throw margin, three projected starters on the bench and a game in an arena that has been tough for the Illini, they were right there. As fair as it is to point out faults, it is fair to say this was a positive sign as this team tries to find their identity and grow together as a unit.
More sizeable challenges to come. With Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. dressed in street clothes, there is only so much Groce can do to his game plan to adjust against mismatches down low. The Illini got beat on the backboard once again, as Ohio State held a 42-to-33 rebounding advantage. The Buckeyes grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, including seven in the first half. This marked the third straight game in which Illinois allowed double-digit offensive boards. Unfortunately, the down-low defeats are all but inevitable - and things are only going to get more difficult. Ohio State entered the game as a second-tier rebounding team in the Big Ten. Now, the Illini are set to face the best the conference has to offer in terms of rebounding margin: Michigan State (No. 1) and Purdue (No. 2). Both teams love to eat up points in the paint as well. Illinois simply doesn't have the size, strength and athleticism down low to challenge. But what they lack in those categories, they'll have to try to make up for with effort, discipline and toughness.