Columbus, OH – It was a game where something had to give. Both Ohio State (16-4/3-4) and Illinois (13-7/2-5) came into Thursday night’s contest, losers of four straight games and residing in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings. Faltering down the stretch in their last three losses, the Buckeyes reversed the trend by finishing strong and winning the game 62-55.
Ohio State was led by 6’8” junior forward LaQuinton Ross with 18 points, including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc, and 6’4” senior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who notched 16, most in the second half. Illinois got bounce-back performances from 6’6” senior swingman Joe Bertrand who poured-in a game-high 19 points and 6’11” junior post player Nnanna Egwu, who scored ten points with nine boards.
After a pedestrian first half where the Fighting Illini held the lead 25-24 going into the break, both teams continued the poor shooting that has plagued each team in their recent skid. Illinois held Ohio State to just 29 percent shooting in the opening half, forcing the Buckeyes to shoot from the perimeter by cutting-off penetration and undercutting screens.
The game was essentially back-and-forth until the final 3:45 when, in an effort to stem a mild Buckeyes’ run, coach John Groce reluctantly went to a match-up zone, which Minnesota and Nebraska had successfully employed against Ohio State in their previous two losses. Surprisingly, the Buckeyes began to drill some three-pointers, led by Smith, Jr., Ross, and 6’2 senior guard Aaron Craft. Connecting on their perimeter shots briefly opened-up the inside, and coupled with some costly Illinois backcourt turnovers, allowed the Buckeyes to pull-away for the victory.
Ohio State’s glaring scoring problems has as much to do with the inconsistency of their leading scorer (Ross), as it does with finding a reliable second or third scoring option. Ross inherited the go-to scoring threat from last season’s All-American DeShaun Thomas, and leads the team with 14.1 ppg. Adept at hitting three-point shots, Ross has diversified his offense by both playing with his back to the basket and by taking his defender to the hoop. During the Buckeyes’ losing streak, the team often looked to Ross to pull them out of their doldrums, but he was unable to respond in crunch time.
A bigger mystery may be Smith, Jr. (12.1 ppg), who is a capable scorer on most nights, but is the streakiest of shooters in that he can score 16 points one night, then disappear for an entire game and score four. Most of his inconsistencies can be tied to his shooting mechanics, where he takes the ball far behind his head and ultimately ends-up with varying release points. The senior guard is a standout defender, but needs to take a more active role in the teams’ offense and play a better floor game.
Illinois has dealt with uneven performances as well, and no better example than Egwu, who rebounded with a ten-point effort after going scoreless in the Illini’s previous two losses. Tall with a long wing span, the junior forward/center is more of a finesse-type forward who packs a solid mid-range game due his smooth shooting mechanics. He has added a jump-hook to his repertoire and can be the inside scoring option that Illinois so desperately needs. Egwu does have a tendency to get pushed-around by more physical interior players, but is a capable defender who registers plenty of weak-side blocks.
Bertrand, coming off off-season right shoulder surgery, is one of the more athletic wing players in college basketball. Most feel he needs to be more aggressive offensively, and he was for the most part in this game. He has proved to be the Illini’s best outside threat, averaging 45 percent on his three-point attempts and a respectable 11.1 ppg. The senior rebounds well from the guard position with 5.4 rpg and his size and quickness allows him to defend the 1-4 positions on the floor. If there is a fly in the ointment, it would be his floor game, where he has a wretched 0.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Big Ten Conference, again one of the best in the country, will not do either team any favors the rest of the way, as most nights will provide a quality opponent. Both teams need to pick-up-the-pace offensively and despite their defensive-oriented styles, could stand to be more physical.
Deric McKamey is a Correspondent and Scout for NetScouts Basketball. Thanks to thelantern.com for the Ross photo.