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Illinois vs. Ohio St. Final: Illini Look A Winnable Game Right In The Eye, Then Lose

Ohio St. won, but it certainly wasn't convincing. Illinois should have had this one.

Kirk Irwin

Neither team played well enough to win. And in the ugly muck, Illinois didn't rise up and take the winnable game. Ohio State did, 62-55.

Let's start with the top talking point. This one deserves the body, not the notes: Rayvonte Rice did not score.

Rice was 0-for-8 from the field, 0-for-3 from behind the arc. He managed only two rebounds, two assists, and although he had a nice block, he didn't score. Zero points. All the early season talk about, "Where would this team be without Rayvonte Rice?" Well, it happened tonight. He wasn't there. (More in the notes).

The game started slow, filled with bricks and slow feet. Each team rejected the start of the basketball game like a bad organ, only they didn't puke on the court. They just stumbled around instead.

Let's start with the top talking point. Rayvonte Rice did not score.

It was bad. Each team had more than six turnovers. Each team shot less than 40 percent from the floor (38 percent for the Illini, 30 percent for Ohio St.). And each team had four or less assists. Ohio State shot 30 percent from behind the arc (only 25 percent for Illinois) and that was the best stat of the half. Still, thanks to the play of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, the Illini led at half, 25-24.

In the second half, the pace picked up, and for a good stretch, we had a true college basketball game on our hands. Joseph Bertrand was fantastic. He didn't take over the game in traditional amazing-Joe fashion, but he never missed. On a night when Tracy Abrams was barely average and Rayvonte Rice didn't exist, Joe B carried the team. Jon Ekey helped. He found his stroke again, making three 3-pointers on the night.

But we could never quite catch up. After a made free throw, LaQuinton Ross would hit a three. Or Lenzelle Smith would knock down a jumper. Or LaQuinton Ross again. Or Lenzelle again. Those two were killers tonight.

As the night wound down, and the Illini trailed--only barely--Malcolm Hill grabbed an offensive rebound, dribbled up the floor, then passed it directly to an Ohio State defender. He meant to pass it to Bertrand, but Bertrand was running up the floor, unready for a pass. Lenzelle Smith grabbed the ball, scored on a shellshocked Hill, and the game was essentially over. Not the story of the season by any means, but a worthy chapter--on a night when our star can't score and the freshman carry his weight, the freshman eventually fumble the load and no one picks it up. Illinois loses.

Here's the gif to sum it all up.


Oh, Nnanna.


- Nnanna Egwu FINALLY scored and FINALLY played really well (outside of the broomstick incident). Rayvonte Rice is the key piece of this year's squad, but the offense flows twice as fast when Egwu has confidence and can knock down a jumper. He played well tonight. The loss isn't on him.

- Rayvonte Rice is not healthy. Of course he's not. He was diagnosed with a strained adductor on Jan. 14. That injury typically takes 1-to-2 months to heal, Rice has not taken a single game off, and it's only been a week-and-a-half. Healthy? What's the steroid testing policy? He's nursing an injury that limits every bit of his explosion. For that, part of his performance tonight is excused. But for the other part, Rice made poor decisions. He anxiously chucked up threes, playing in a scorers mindset despite not currently being in a scorers body.

- Jon Ekey looked good. I was pleased. Joseph Bertand looked ever better. I was extra pleased.

- FRESHMAN. There's a bunch of 'em and they're all complicated players, so it isn't fair to over-simplify them. Let's treat them with respect. Lets treat them as individuals. Let's not say they are hit-or-miss every time down the floor. Let's not say they look dynamic at points, only to make brainless mistakes seconds later. Let's not say they have tremendous potential, but frustrate the hell out of everyone--including themselves--right now. Let's not say that. Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are far too different to apply blanket statements to.

NEXT GAME: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Indiana Hoosiers - Sunday, Jan. 26 - 2:00 p.m. CT