“How Do You Like Me Now?” — Country singer Toby Keith
You could smell this one coming all the way from Columbus, Ohio.
To be honest, the Ohio State Buckeyes have been overrated on the national scene. The current team has an All-American poised to turn pro (Deshaun Thomas), a quality playmaker shooting 36 percent (Aaron Craft) and a great multi-year reputation under Hoopeston’s Thad Matta.
The coach is striving to acquire offensive consistency from three positions and finds himself woefully shy at center.
The Buckeyes reached the Top 10 without beating a single quality team (eight midmajors), and all four traveling Ohio State media members emphasized early Saturday that this team in no way compares to last season. They were correct.
So despite arriving here with an 11-2 record, the Buckeyes found themselves overwhelmed in the UI’s revitalized House of Paign on Saturday afternoon, 74-55. And let’s be fair to the Illini: For 30 minutes, they competed at a level that would have dispatched anyone in the country.
Playing their first home game in 20 days, and backed into a corner by an opening Big Ten loss at Purdue, John Groce’s Illini took a San Francisco streetcar ride on the electricity cascading down from a packed C Section as they installed Bright Orange back into the Orange and Blue. If they had reached this level elsewhere, they hadn’t shown it at the Assembly Hall.
What we witnessed was the most spectacular home showing since the Illini shocked the same Buckeyes 79-74 here last year, that team featuring irreplaceables Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
This was a blowout from the moment Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams hit their first two jumpers. It was 25-11 before the visitors knew what hit them, the Illini cashing two early treys and building the lead even as they embarked on an 0-for-10 streak of three-point tries. Illinois made 14 of 19 two-point shots in a sizzling first half. The crowd went particularly wild when Illinois made an 8-0 run featuring a Brandon Paul dunk on a lob from Abrams, that followed by driving goals by Abrams and Joe Bertrand at 25-11.
Attaining a mental zone they haven’t reached since Gonzaga, the hosts blocked eight Ohio State shots, were credited with eight steals and outrebounded the Buckeyes 40-30.
Yep, 40-30. Quite a change. Everybody chipped in as they swarmed the Buckeyes.
“We’re working on this,” Groce said. “We have to rebound by committee.”
The margin peaked at 56-31 before Illini ballhandling unraveled with a series of turnovers (12 in the second half), those mistakes offset by late treys that chilled Buckeye rally efforts.
Illinois still isn’t back to early-season three-point form, as 8 for 27 shows, but Ohio State was worse, cashing four long ones out of 19 tries. The Buckeyes shot 33 percent, slightly better than in the home loss to Kansas.
Center of attention
Referring back to Wednesday’s disappointment at Purdue, Groce was upbeat:
“We can’t get too low or too high. Today the guys responded. We showed more toughness and grit and passion, although we kicked it around in the second half and, after a good start on defense, we lost Thomas some.”
With inferences flying that defeating his mentor, Matta, meant more, Groce said: “Every Big Ten game counts one. You don’t get credit for two wins in one.”
Both coaches lauded Egwu for what stands as his best performance yet: 7-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds, no turnovers, sound defense.
“I was able to pop out on ball screens,” Egwu said. “We had good flow in our offense.”
Noted Matta: “Egwu can shoot and he kept hitting those 17-footers. We seem to bring out the best in Illinois.”
To which Groce stated: “Nnanna is getting more and more confident. He works hard and earns everything positive that happens to him.”
Egwu’s 16-point effort gave Illinois a fourth prong in its point production alongside Paul (19), Abrams (13) and Bertrand (12). The scoring balance was in sharp contrast to the Buckeyes who showed Thomas at 24 and no one else in double figures until Craft cashed three very late baskets to reach 11.
While D.J. Richardson closed with three treys, his 3-for-11 afternoon drew more questions about when he’ll break out of his extended slump.
Groce reacted strongly to the question, saying he’ll continue to encourage Richardson to shoot.
“D.J. defends and screens and dives on loose balls. Next question.”
This wasn’t a day to linger on shortcomings, not when Ohio State had won 11 of the previous 14. But, as yet, this isn’t the same Ohio State powerhouse we’ve become accustomed to.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.