April showers bring May flowers. College basketball is something similar to that analogy as December cupcakes bring January headaches.
“It’s a shift of the mind,” Matta said of the upcoming schedule following his team’s victory against Maryland-Baltimore County. “I’ve reminded them that we’re only worried about one team and that’s Illinois.”
Though neither team has played a schedule that would be categorized as soft, the intensity brought by the conference slate cannot be matched by relatively meaningless encounters played outside of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have been battle-tested in preparation for this game, having played games against Syracuse and Texas A&M in New York, North Carolina and Florida in Columbus and Butler in Indianapolis. By comparison, Illinois faced Arizona State, Duke and Oklahoma State in Hawaii, Maryland in College Park and Arizona and Missouri on neutral floors.
Despite the competition, however, not all has been rosy.
While forgivable losses, the young Buckeyes struggled mightily in scoring for large stretches against Texas A&M, Butler and North Carolina. All three teams, however, rank in the top 15 of the RPI index, a measure that helps select and seed the NCAA Tournament field. Though competitive against Arizona, Duke and Maryland, Illinois has losses lesser in quality to Miami (Ohio) and most recently, Tennessee State – both on their home floor.
This year’s Illinois team has vaguely resembled a small dog franticly defending its turf against a trespasser – plenty of bark but not enough bite. The Illini lacks the scoring punch it needs so desperately this year. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case had Eric Gordon not reneged on his verbal commitment in favor of Indiana, but that’s water under a bridge.
With just three players averaging double-figures, and only four scoring more than five points per game, Illinois has a love affair with something that hasn’t loved them back – 3-point shooting. Only guard Trent Meacham (27-of-65) and Calvin Brock (6-of-14) is shooting over 40 percent from long range for a team managing just 28.8 percent as a team.
Good ball-movement (14 assists per game of 24 shots made) and strong perimeter defense (29.9 percent 3-pointers given up) remain strong trademarks of Weber’s teams, but too many possessions are coming up empty following quick sequences.
The problems for Ohio State, who is a year and four-starters removed from a National Championship appearance, appear to be dramatically different.
Shooting, as a whole, has not necessarily plagued the Buckeyes. Ohio State is knocking down 38 percent from behind the arc though they’ve lacked the consistency to match.
Interestingly enough, Ohio State ranks in the top third of college basketball in many offensive and defensive categories such as shooting, defending the shot, taking care of the basketball and overall defense.
The Achilles heel, however, has been defensive rebounding. Ohio State ranks No. 225 nationally in allowing offensive rebounds to their opponents – a downfall of the 2-3 and 3-2 zones played much of the season by Matta. Another side drawback to the zone has been the number of 3-point shots allowed (42.8 percent of all attempts) to opponents – creating more opportunities. That ranks No. 325 of about 340 teams in the country, for perspective.
Additionally, Ohio State is one of the worst teams in college basketball at getting to the free throw line this season, though that fact is offset by being No. 1 in giving up free throw attempts – no question a direct correlation to allowing so many 3-pointers.
So let’s put two and two together.
Ohio State gives up a lot of 3-pointers, though they defend them rather well in giving up 29 percent. Illinois loves to take a lot of 3-pointers, though they make only 28 percent.
Anyone venture a guess what you’ll see a lot of Thursday evening?
In fairness to Illinois, the ratio of 3-pointers to field goals attempted is actually around the threshold of where most teams should aim (one-third). However, it’s the lack of success in making those shots that has created a handicap on the offensive end.
But this game goes so much further than adding and subtracting pros and cons. It’s about the start of Big Ten play – which just got tougher.
This is the first season that the Big Ten teams will now play 18 conference games. In the past, teams played 16 games; six teams both home and away, two teams at home and the other two on the road. This year, each team will play eight teams twice and only two teams once each – one coming at home, the other on the road.
In effect, this will create more of a balanced schedule and also crown more of a true champion. But it also makes winning on the road even more important, as you’re going to see all but one team on its home floor each season.
For Ohio State, the first of those nine battles comes in a place that hasn’t necessarily been friendly to the Buckeyes through the years. Illinois holds a 59-22 advantage in Champaign all-time, though the Buckeyes won easily in 2006-07, 62-44 when Ohio State was ranked No. 6 at the time.
While Ohio State has won three straight against the Illini, and 16-straight in the Big Ten, dating back to January 9 of last year (Wisconsin), success tomorrow night is far from guaranteed. Behind Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, Illinois has a strong frontcourt averaging 23.4 points and 13.5 rebounds combined.
And with defensive rebounding being sometimes spotty for Ohio State’s zone, that could be problematic against this talented duo for Illinois.
Such is life in the Big Ten.
“They have tougher guys and bigger guys,” said OSU forward Othello Hunter of Big Ten frontcourts. “It’s important to establish a post game to get an inside-out presence.”
It’s fitting the Winter Solstice occurs in the Northern hemisphere on December 22. Because as seasons change, so does the importance of games in college basketball.
January will bring plenty of headaches for teams in the Big Ten.
Just ask Ohio State and Illinois.