The Big Ten's excellent talent last season spared us from what we remember about this conference's basketball in the past: it's a wacky, grueling affair.
And teams, good teams and bad alike, are experiencing win streaks and defiant losing streaks. Penn State has opened the conference slate 0-6, losing three of those games by a combined seven points. The once formidable Wisconsin has lost three straight, including one at the Kohl Center.
And Ohio State and Illinois face each other Thursday night each nursing a four-game losing streak, wondering if they were the teams they thought they were only a month ago. Each almost mirror images of each other, too, in possessing good defenses and sometimes woeful offenses.
The latter presents the crux of the match-up: who will score, how effectively will they score, and which team can avoid the scoring droughts that plague both teams?
To be fair, Ohio State's losing streak is against more impressive teams than Illinois faced: at Michigan State, Iowa, and on the road against underrated Minnesota and Nebraska. But those last two teams have mediocre defenses at best, and Ohio State scored 53 and 62 points, respectively, in those games. Big Ten coaches scout mercilessly, and the Buckeyes have seen zone defenses more and more because of that preparation.
Opponents have dared Ohio State to shoot the 3-pointer, and they often oblige. And promptly miss. When your two best 3-point shooters are a streaky guard (Lenzelle Smith Jr.) and a wing with questionable shot selection at best (LaQuinton Ross), your problems on offense are manifold. Smith shoots 35 percent from 3-point range but coaches know not to sag off him on the perimeter, and he saw few open looks against Nebraska on Monday. That might leave a few driving lanes open for Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, but it's a smart gamble.
Ross is the only one with a knack for scoring, but he's also capable of the no-show, the midgame mental check-out, and the hot shooting streak. It has to be hard for Ohio State head coach Thad Matta to know what he's going to get from his only legitimate scoring threat from game to game. Ross shoots 40 percent from the 3-point line with a solid amount of attempts. He's also prone to launching those shots at inopportune moments that kill meaningful possessions. He's found consistent scoring recently, especially in the last two games where he scored 22 points apiece. Ohio State also lost both games.
But, hey, those guys are all-stars on offense compared to the rest of the team. Craft's only tactic is driving to the lane, which sometimes can be productive but often leads to him traveling or making a risky pass (I think many of his extra steps get uncalled by the referees, too). Scott can't shoot, hesitates and seemingly mulls over the pros and cons of him shooting while he's wide open, and isn't a particularly effective finisher on dribble drives. Amir Williams has to be given the ball or collect it within three feet of the basket to score. That's the three other components of Ohio State's starting five.
Sam Thompson can unleash some frightening athleticism, but that's largely on alley-oop lobs and offensive rebounds. Marc Loving, who's going to be a stud in his career in Columbus, is still a freshman with the tendency to get overwhelmed. Amedeo Della Valle (he's the dude with the goofy hair, if you're wondering) shoots a good 3-point percentage but can't stay on the floor because of his defense.
What this all adds up to is something rarely seen by a Matta-coached team: he plays more than seven players! Ohio State bench players are normally a mysterious bunch, their skin pale from the warm-ups hiding their skins. But when three of his starters have extreme offensive limitations, Matta's been forced to mix and match lineups that can grind out some points. Scott and Williams, though plus defenders, have only seen about 22 minutes of playing time in the last two games because Matta can't justify keeping them on the court longer. Truth be told, Craft should have reduced minutes too, if he's wasn't Aaron Craft (I really admire the guy actually).
In researching this team, I thought I'd hone in on the scant few moments when Ohio State strings together some productive scoring possessions. Coming out of halftime against Nebraska on Monday after another paltry first half where it scored 25 points, Matta yanked Williams from the lineup and replaced him with Thompson for a four-guard offense that positioned the 6-foot-8 Ross as the center.
Matta then used some creative spacing to generate some open looks. Ross caught a couple looks on the elbows. Smith Jr. posted up and then threw a nice pass to Ross streaking down the lane for an easy layup. Thompson, the dangerous alley-oop threat, roamed the baseline for a seam to throw down a slam. Soon enough, Ohio State scored 13 points and had a two-point lead.
Of course, it didn't last because nothing good can last for this team on offense. Around the ten-minute mark in the second half, the Buckeyes went seven whole minutes without scoring a single point, sealing its fate. Illinois is a better defensive unit than Nebraska and Minnesota, and this should give Illinois more than a fighting chance to keep this game close, even on the road.
You're probably thinking, "That's a pretty damning scouting report. We might win this and right the trajectory of our season!" Not so fast, my orange and blue friends. Despite all of these very real problems on offense, Ohio State is the No. 1 team in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. How does Shannon Scott score? He pressures the hell out of guards, forces them to cough up the ball, and scores on a transition layup. Same with Craft. Same with Thompson (except he dunks). Then Williams is good for a few blocks a game and solid rim protection.
And now you've snapped to reality and realized how pathetic the Illinois offense has been, and how much of an uphill battle this will be in Columbus tonight. John Groce says Rayvonte Rice is healthier than he's been the past two weeks. That's a start. And Ohio State will probably have trouble scoring. But if the Illini offense performs the same as it has the past three games?
We'll be lucky to reach 50 points.