A hot-shooting Illinois team pounced on another slow start for the Buckeyes and the head coach called timeout. When Ohio State hit the floor again they weren’t in the 2-3 zone that they had played for nearly the entire season, but in a man-to-man defense.
That shift triggered aggressiveness in Ohio State (12-3, 1-1) and propelled them to a 77-61 victory over Illinois (10-5, 0-2). While many outside of the Buckeyes locker room have been calling for a switch to man-to-man for much of the season, complaints that grew louder with each loss, Sam Thompson said that the players weren’t the ones to request the shift.
Matta said it was more about what Illinois was doing.
“They shot us out of it to be honest with you,” the coach said. (Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice) was on fire and its like we told our guys, it wasn't like they were shooting 21-footers. They were shooting from 24 feet and they were going in. That was the biggest thing. They just literally shot us out of it.”
The coach clearly knew what he was talking about as Illini hit eight of their first 14 attempts from three, but went just one of 10 against the man defense.
Whatever the reason, the shift of defensive philosophy made a world of difference. Against the man-to-man defense the Illini closed the half going just one of four and turning the ball over once. It allowed the Buckeyes to claw within one before halftime.
“I think there was some excitement,” Thompson said of the man defense. “Like we said, the seniors have been playing man a long time, a lot of the younger guys have played man all throughout high school and what not, it’s something that they are comfortable with. I think we got a little bit excited.”
The Buckeyes remained in that defensive set after intermission, taking their first second-half lead on a pair of Trey McDonald free throws with 15 minutes remaining. That was part of a 21-2 run that extended the lead to 62-46. The Buckeyes never looked back.
The run featured a number of explosive transition plays, including a remarkable steal by D'Angelo Russell in which he stole the ball, tossed it behind his back to Marc Loving as he was headed out of bounds and recovered to finish a layup at the other end.
“I have to see it, honestly,” he said. “It was just naturally, honestly. I couldn’t really take you step-by-step. It was just natural, something I can’t explain.” That play, which even Russell couldn’t explain made it 53-44. The freshman drilled a three on the next possession. He finished with a game-high 22 points and four assists, a far cry from the six points he put up in last week’s Big Ten-opening loss to Iowa.
While the win over the Illini counted the same as the 11 that came before it, the defensive switch coupled with the emphatic second-half run seemed to be a seminal moment for this Ohio State team. The Buckeyes had lost each of the previous three times that they trailed at halftime, and didn’t have a win over a signature opponent.
While a 10-5 Illinois team may not be that, it did get the Buckeyes on the board in Big Ten play.
“We knew it was a must-win game,” Thompson said. “Anytime you’re at home and especially any time you’re at home in conference it is a must-win game. You have to win at home. It’s so important to protect home-court. Any time we go on the road it’s a battle. “We obviously didn’t start out the way we wanted to on Tuesday, but I think we did a good job of responding. All the young guys did a great job in practice, the older guys did a great job leading and you saw what happened.”
After switching to man-to-man, the Buckeyes blew the doors off Illinois, outscoring the Illini 51-27 and creating 14 of their 20 turnovers. Ohio State held Illinois to 8 of 22 shooting in their man to man defense (36 percent).
“We got our butt kicked,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We were bad and they were really good. From my viewpoint, certainly I don’t like to comment on other coach’s teams because he may have a different thought on it as he coaches his guys every day but that’s from my perspective. Certainly in the second half I thought it was a total 180, I thought it was them playing really well and I thought it was us playing some really, really bad basketball.”
Loving and Thompson supplemented Russell’s scoring with 13 each. Shannon Scott, who seemed rejuvenated by the switch to man, had nine points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals. The Buckeyes shot 60 percent for the game.
Ohio State now heads on the road to face Minnesota at 9 p.m. Tuesday. The Gophers (11-4, 0-2) will be desperate for a win after starting with consecutive losses in Big Ten play. It's hard to say whether the Buckeyes will be in man for that game as Matta was ambiguous when asked if it was the best way to play going forward, but the Illinois game makes a strong case for that defense.