A Trey Burke missed layup, a Jordan Morgan tap-back that spun around and rolled off, and a loose ball scamper that killed the clock. Following the miss of two front ends of 1-and-1 free throw trips and the split of a pair before that, the Indiana Hoosiers were able to use a 6-0 run in the final 52 seconds with all points coming from Cody Zeller to stun Michigan in Ann Arbor 72-71, Michigan’s first home loss of the season.
I start with this because it meant everything and nothing in regards to the Ohio State game yesterday. The Buckeyes began the day with a shot at a share of the Big Ten regular season title. They took care of their business earlier in the day. OSU used a balanced attack, led by Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft on offense and Shannon Scott and Craft on defense as they pulled away from Illinois in the second half, winning 68-55. It was an ugly game for most of the way, but the Buckeyes really put the defensive clamps down for stretches, and it was an enjoyable game from that respect, slowing a tournament team with a lot of guard play. With the Michigan loss, Indiana claimed the Big Ten title all for themselves with a 14-4 conference record with Ohio State coming up one game short at 13-5 along with Michigan State. Michigan by virtue of their loss will have to play in day one of the Big Ten tournament against Penn State, while Wisconsin takes the final bye. In the fallout, Ohio State comes up just short of securing a fourth straight conference regular season title, which would have been the first such feat since Michigan State (1998-2001).
Back to the OSU game, to their credit, the Buckeyes finished things off right on Evan Ravenel’s Senior Day. It, too, could have been leading scorer Deshaun Thomas’s last game in Columbus as his junior campaign winds down. The Buckeyes started a little slow as D.J. Richardson put up a quick five points and Tyler Griffey hit a pair of open threes for the Illini. Meanwhile, Thomas missed three of his first four shots. In fact, the Bucks only hit four of their first 13 shots and they trailed 17-13 more than halfway through the first half.
The Illini backcourt drives the team with the guard trio of Brandon Paul, Richardson, and Tracy Abrams as their three leading scorers, averaging nearly 40 points per game. Illinois went small for stretches in the first half, and it was when Ohio State countered with the same small ball lineup that they took off. From the 10:02 mark on into the halftime buzzer, Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel sat the bench as the Bucks ran with a primary unit of Craft, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, and Thomas. Illinois stopped attacking the bucket, instead settling for jumpshots, and the Bucks went on a 22-9 run to close the half with a 9 point lead. In that stretch, five different Buckeyes scored and OSU shot 8-for-11. They gave up six offensive rebounds in that stretch to keep Illinois close, but overall, it was a gamechanger, and Coach Thad Matta deserves credit for getting the most out of this team that is definitely less talented than a few of his other teams.
Relegated to chucking up jumpers, Illinois didn’t thrive. They shot just 30 percent in the first half and 35% for the game. Even worse, they were just 7-of-25 from three point range as their offense resembled Ohio State’s in its darkest hours, mindless reversal after reversal where the ball barely got inside the three point arc. It didn’t deviate a great deal from their season behavior, shooting just 42% as a team and 33 percent from three point range. Despite all the small ball from the Bucks, Illinois scored just 16 points in the paint.
Shannon Scott gets a paragraph of his own for his effort in this one. The sophomore point pulled down 9 rebounds, including 7 on the defensive end. That, along with 7 points, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block in 28 minutes provided another effort, like Craft’s most of the time, that can’t accurately be expressed in a stat line. He allowed the Bucks to run the small ball game, and he helped play tough defense on D.J. Richardson, who shot just 4-for-11 for 10 points, 0 assists, and 2 turnovers. More than anything, Scott changed the tempo, the pace, the defensive intensity when he’s on the floor, and it’s that scrappy, clawing mentality on defense that takes Ohio State from a good to a great defensive team. Turning those turnovers (Illinois had 12) into points (15 off turnovers for OSU) needs to continue to be a massive part of what Ohio State does on offense.
On offense, both Thomas and Craft faced double teams at times, but they both made good decisions out of them. For Thomas, that often meant turning and shooting a mid-range jumper before the double team could close in on him. On one particular occasion in the second half, it set up a really nice assist to Evan Ravenel for an and-one. With Craft, it meant staying in motion around the perimeter, cutting around the edge of the oncoming double. Thomas led the team with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, and Craft added 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, but it was the team’s balance that carried the day. Not only were there 20 bench points, but seven of the eight Buckeyes scored at least five points (Williams was held scoreless in just 10 minutes of play). Smith Jr. had seven of his 10 in the first half, Ravenel scored all seven of his in the second half, and Ross had six points in just nine minutes of game action. If the Bucks can get that type of collaboration in the next few weeks, they could make an extended run.
Well, you know what comes next, the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. This could be the most highly anticipated conference tournament ever. Because let’s face it, the Big Ten is cut-throat and incredibly deep and talented from top to bottom. Ohio State will take on the winner of the 7-10 game between Purdue and Nebraska, playing the winner around 6:30 pm on Friday night in Chicago. There’s plenty to play for if you’re the Buckeyes. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a team with more of a chip on its shoulder among the top tier teams heading into the tournament. Ohio State gets a fairly good draw, with only third-seed Michigan State on their half of the bracket among the top teams. If Ohio State can win three in three days and capture the conference tourney crown, given the clout of the Big Ten, they’d probably be looking at a #2 seed. One of Thad Matta’s best traits is having his teams ready and fired up for the three games in three days that is the conference tournament. It’s hard to bet against Indiana, but if anyone can stop them, it’s the Buckeyes.
(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)