The Illini dug a hole they couldn’t quite climb out of in this one against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
This is becoming a concerning pattern for this Illini team, who also found themselves down 15 at the half against Northwestern just 10 days ago.
Hot perimeter shooting from the Buckeyes and a number of careless turnovers from the Illini got them back on their heels early, forcing them to dig deeper a make a run towards the end of the first half and into the second. Poor free throw shooting and stagnant offense plagued the Illini once again as well.
Let’s see what we can take away from this one.
This game came down to a game of matchups, and Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann came out ahead of this one. The Buckeyes went small with a 6-foot-6 EJ Liddell manning the center spot for long stretches. Offensively, Liddell was the difference maker for the Buckeyes in this one, finishing with 26 points (4-7 from 3). Kofi Cockburn proved to be a poor defensive matchup, as he was slow closing out on the perimeter, giving Liddell too many clean looks from three and mid-range. For a guy who came in shooting just 3-of-18 on threes this season, this is just unacceptable.
In post up situations, Dosunmu, Miller and Co. frequently found themselves playing in between their man on the perimeter and the post with the ball, effectively guarding no one as the post can still pass out to an open shooter or make a move to the basket. This makes life too easy for a catch and shoot player like Justin Ahrens (11 points, 3-of-5 from 3) and capable perimeter player Seth Towns (11 points, 2-of-3 from 3).
As an undersized power forward on defense, 6-foot-3 Da’Monte Williams struggled in some one on one post matchups against the 6-foot-8 Kyle Young. The Illini have continually left him without help in bad defensive matchups against bigger opposing players throughout the year, and it’s been exploited time and again. Underwood needs to make better adjustments in the game before finding themselves down 15 or more. With the versatile pieces this Illini team has, especially in the front court, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to effectively counter these small ball lineups.
To their credit, the Buckeyes came out with a good game plan to counter the size of Kofi inside. Using a by-committee approach with Young, Zed Key, and Liddell, they frequently double- and triple-teamed Cockburn on the catch, forcing either a turnover (Cockburn had 3) or a kick out to a lower percentage shot from a lower percentage offense option.
They also did well making Ayo work for his offense (22 points on 6-of-16 shooting). Holding both of them to below their averages until late in the game made it tough for the Illini to make any sustained runs throughout the game, despite some late pushes with help from Adam Miller (14 points, 3-of-8 from 3) and Jacob Grandison (8 points, 2-of-4 from 3).
The Illini will be at home for another matchup with Penn State on Tuesday before hitting the road to East Lansing for a weekend matchup against the Spartans next Saturday.
The Illini need to find more answers defensively to be able to stop the bleeding when an opposing player gets hot. Better closeouts on shooters and communication and activity in their help defense to stop dribble drives would be a good place to start. Compounding errors with a turnover offensively leading to poor effort getting back defensively needs to improve to prevent multi-point/possession swings in a single sequence.
They can’t afford to continue taking double-digit deficits into the half and expect an outsized second-half performance to carry them to victory. The Illini have yet to put together a full 40-minute effort this year and learning to play with greater consistency and polish defensively are going to be key to gutting out wins in this gritty, deep Big Ten conference.