For the game, OSU was out-rebounded by a 33-29 margin that was made possible thanks to a 17-6 Illini margin on the offensive glass. On the first possession of the second half, Illinois grabbed four offensive rebounds before eventually connected on a three-pointer and causing OSU head coach Thad Matta to throw his hands up in the air.
With the Buckeyes clinging to a three-point lead in the final minute of the game, sophomore swingman David Lighty managed to grab one of OSU's six offensive rebounds during the game to help secure the victory. Afterward, he talked about how he wanted to make a play to help fire up his teammates.
All it took was an offensive rebound. And after taking Wednesday off, the Buckeyes returned to practice Thursday with an increased focus on improving on the glass.
"We're obviously trying to get our guys to understand that we're giving up these offensive rebounds is like starting the game and saying, ‘Here's 12 possessions free on us,' " Matta said. "Rebounding is hard because sometimes different situations create different circumstances. You can never as a coach completely say, ‘Now look, they're going to be right here when they shoot and the miss is going to come off right here.' "
As of Jan. 23, the Buckeyes ranked sixth in the Big Ten, averaging 36.9 boards per game. In contrast, opponents are grabbing 35.6 per game against OSU – the third-worst mark in the conference.
The Buckeyes have outrebounded their opponents in 11 of their 19 games but have had a more difficult time against conference foes. In six Big Ten games, OSU has been outrebounded four times.
It all adds up to what sophomore guard P.J. Hill said he learned from listening to NBA coach Pat Riley: "Rebounds are wins.
"You've got to rebound to win. A team can't shoot 20 or 30 more times than you and expect to win."
During practice, the Buckeyes spend approximately one-third of their time solely working on rebounding drills, freshman center Kosta Koufos said. The other two-thirds consist of skill work and offense, he said.
When working on rebounding, the coaches put a bubble on top of the rim that prevents the ball from going through. The players work on individual one-on-one rebounding drills as well as five-on-five drills where players have to locate defenders and box them out.
Drills that involve the entire team have the Buckeyes working on rebounding out of their 3-2 zone.
"We go at it pretty hard," said Koufos, who is averaging a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game, good enough for eighth-best in the conference. "We don't hurt each other, but it's very physical."
In addition to Koufos, senior forward Othello Hunter is averaging 6.3 boards per game from his power forward position.
The team's almost exclusive reliance on the zone defense this season has been one reason people have speculated the Buckeyes have had problems grabbing defensive rebounds, but Matta has frequently downplayed that aspect by saying the responsibilities are the same as in a man-to-man zone: locate a defender and box him out.
When the Buckeyes do team rebounding drills, there are punishments to be paid by the losing squad.
"If you don't rebound you lose and you've got to run," Hill said. "We've got suicides – touch every line and come back – sometimes down and back in 11 seconds. Definitely rebounding is a priority. If you don't rebound, you will run."
During his high school career, Koufos said he primarily played in a 2-3 zone. Playing with one fewer post player has made him adjust when it comes to rebounding, he said, but the concept remains the same.
One season ago, OSU's leading rebounder was Greg Oden who, like Koufos, stood an even 7-0. In 32 games, Oden averaged 9.6 rebounds per game and finished with 113 offensive rebounds. Although Hill was not on the team one season ago, he said the team is still feeling the effect of not having a physically intimidating presence like Oden in the paint.
"Greg Oden makes it easy because you know he's going to get it and everybody can leak out a little bit," he said. "With our team everybody has to contribute as much. Guards have to rebound."
When OSU tips off against Minnesota on Saturday night at 8 p.m. (Big Ten Network), they will be facing a team with similar rebounding numbers. The Golden Gophers are one spot behind the Buckeyes in rebounding offense at 34.5 per game and one spot ahead of them in rebounding defense with 33.9 per contest.
In order to improve to 5-2 in the conference, the Buckeyes know they must play a physical game and control the glass.
"It's hard, but I think it's just the basic concept of being hungrier when the ball goes up," Matta said. "I think that your great rebounders, they've got a knack for coming up with rebounds. You've got that mentality, that understanding and you do it consistently. I think there is a knack."