The Illini let a great opportunity slip away on Thursday night. With an amped-up Orange Krush and a beatable opponent on the other side, Illinois was in a good position to get back above .500 and win back-to-back games in the Big Ten for the first time all season. They followed suit through the first six-plus minutes, as the Orange and Blue opened up a 13-2 lead. The Illini shot 5-of-9 from the field during that stretch, while matching the Buckeyes with five rebounds. But Illinois' play quickly flipped to the other side of the spectrum. They went just 2-of-16 from the field the rest of the first half, while being outrebounded by Ohio State 25-to-8. The Illini went more than 10 minutes without a basket between the end of the first frame and into the second - but the Buckeyes were still only up 32-26 with 18 minutes to go. Illinois later tacked on another prolonged field goal drought in the second half, which appeared to leave them dead in the water - down 56-43 with 6:36 left on the clock. But Ohio State couldn't shut the door, to put it nicely. They gave Illinois ample opportunities to come back and win the game. The Illini accomplished one of those, as Jalen Coleman-Lands hit a three-pointer to tie it at 58 with just 58 seconds left. After getting a stop, Malcolm Hill had a chance to win it before the buzzer, but he was blocked by Keita Bates-Diop on a poorly-executed sequence. Ohio State outscored the Illini 10-to-5 in the overtime frame, and the Buckeyes escaped Champaign with their sixth straight victory over Illinois.
Effort couldn't mask bad execution. The Illini battled to come back from a 13-point deficit with less than seven minutes to go. They refused to quit in what was a scrappy and physical fight to the end. The players deserve credit for that, and head coach John Groce raved about his team's effort and grit after the game. But that only goes so far. Ohio State took bad shots, turned it over and gave the Illini more chances than necessary down the stretch. The Buckeyes looked like a team that didn't know how to win on the road, which makes sense being that they lost their previous three road games by an average of more than 23 points each. On the flip side, the Illini looked dysfunctional far too often at the offensive end. That has been a trend - which even held true in Illinois' win at Minnesota on Saturday. They have a habit of taking ill-advised shots early in the possession. Other times, they go stagnant with the ball sticking in one place. "Hero ball" has become a common occurrence as well. Ultimately, the Illini go through stretches where they lack structure and direction. Groce was asked about his team's inconsistency in the postgame when it comes to execution. His first response was that his team "played their butts off". But playing hard and playing well are two different things.
Coaching decisions to second-guess. The game was in the balance at the end of regulation after a miss by JaQuan Lyle, which gave the Illini the opportunity for the last shot. Hill corralled the rebound with 23 seconds to go and brought the ball up past halfcourt. Despite going 3-of-12 from the field prior to that point, there's no questioning the decision to put the ball and the game in Hill's hands at that point in time. But there's plenty of room to second-guess what transpired after that. Execution is a product of preparation (coaching) and players making plays. In that moment, Groce decided to let a timeout go unused and not draw up a play on the final possession. Instead, he called for a clear-out and Hill put up a step-back three that was blocked. Granted, the decision to shoot a three instead of drive was Hill's to make. But the missed opportunity was as frustrating as it was deflating. Later in overtime, the Illini trailed by three with 16 seconds to go. Groce decided to burn both of his remaining 30-second timeouts during the dead-ball period. That came back to bite the Illini - after Hill and Lyle traded a pair of free throws. Ultimately, Illinois was left to scramble on their final possession and Hill turned it over - despite appearing to be fouled. Nevertheless, Groce's decisions added more ammunition to his armchair critics.
Free throws were killer again. The charity stripe was a difference-maker in Columbus earlier this month. Ohio State shot 39 free throws compared to Illinois' 11 attempts from the line. This time around, the Illini were the ones that attempted 30-plus free throws - while the Buckeyes shot just 13. But Illinois was just 18-of-31 (58.1 percent) on those attempts. Those misses, especially down the stretch in the second half, proved to be costly. Hill also missed a pair of free throws in overtime, which could have tied the game.
Back to reality for Illini bigs. Saturday's game at Minnesota brought on a huge amount of praise for Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke, who combined for 23 points and 23 rebounds. While it was obvious that those numbers wouldn't be replicated, the Illini hoped that was a sign of things to come against Ohio State and others. But Thursday's showing proved that performance in Minneapolis to be a flash in the pan. After outrebounding the Gophers and winning the battle of points in the paint, Illinois got beat up on the interior against the Buckeyes. Ohio State outrebounded the Illini 51-to-34 and outscored them in the paint 28-to-12. Morgan and Finke scored 14 points combined, but they had just seven total rebounds. The duo was 5-of-14 from the field, and they were 3-of-10 from the free-throw line. Their struggles down low were a big reason why the Buckeyes outrebounded the Illini 30-to-14 in the first half, while securing 11 offensive rebounds on 25 missed shots (45.8 percent). Finke had just two rebounds on the game after grabbing a career-high 16 boards against Minnesota. He posted a minus-18 during his 30 minutes of action, which was the worst mark of any in the game. Ohio State came into this matchup ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin.
Man-to-man defense was good. One of the positives for the Illini was their man-to-man defense. They were successful in pressuring the ball and cutting off driving lanes. The Illini forced 14 turnovers on the game, while the Buckeyes shot under 40 percent from the field. Illinois was able to keep their opponent from scoring more than 60 points in regulation for the second straight game - a feat that they were unable to accomplish in their previous six Big Ten games. The Illini zone was not as successful as they would have liked. But they executed well in the man-to-man, and made some crucial stops down the stretch in the second half. Unfortunately, Illinois' offense couldn't do enough to reward that effort when it was all said and done.
"Clearly, the last two games are steps in the right direction in a lot of areas." That was one of Groce's standout comments after the defeat. But the majority of Illini fans won't buy what he is selling with that one. Illinois was fortunate to beat a bad Minnesota (6-15) team in overtime on Saturday, and they swung and missed on another winnable game at home. Even with a variety of injuries, that is the reality. Groce now sports a 26-36 record in Big Ten play, while going 16-15 in conference games at the State Farm Center. The Illini are 4-11 in their last 15 games against Big Ten opponents. This fan base wants to know that the program is going in the right direction, and there doesn't appear to be tangible evidence of that right now. Groce has gotten bad breaks at a bad time, but this isn't just about this season. The entire picture is under a microscope. Groce has always had a knack for making things sound good in front of a microphone, but it's becoming just white noise. If Groce truly believes these past two games are steps in the right direction, the Illinois basketball program is in a dangerous place. Or Groce is delusional. Or both.