Much like Michigan State did a week ago, Illinois arrives in Columbus today with a record that falls far short of its preseason expectations. After rising to as high as No. 12 early in the season, the unranked Fighting Illini (17-10, 7-7 Big Ten) have lost seven of their last 11 games and are squarely on the bubble as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
The Illini hope to get a much-needed, résumé-building win against No. 2 Ohio State (25-2, 12-2), which has hit a mild rough patch of its own, losing two of its last three.
When you start the season 24-0, it seems as though there’s no place to go but down. After the Buckeyes lost at No. 12 Wisconsin (20-6, 10-4) and No. 8 Purdue (22-5, 11-3), coach Thad Matta has had to deal with questions about whether his Buckeyes are actually as good as was previously thought.
Matta, as usual, isn’t concerned.
“You keep a level head and know that things may not go exactly the way you want them to go,” Matta said Monday. “I’m not panicked — we’re 25-2.”
In both losses this year, Matta’s Buckeyes have run into a buzz saw, of sorts, in the form of an outstanding individual performance from one of their opponents. Against the Badgers it was junior guard Jordan Taylor’s 27 points and Sunday at Purdue it was a career-high 38 points from senior guard E’Twaun Moore.
“Those were two, when you think about it, maybe two of the best performances in college basketball this year,” Matta said. “As my luck always has it, I get a first-row seat to watch it.”
Although those players had plenty to do with the Buckeyes’ losses, it bears mentioning that the teams that beat OSU have yet to lose a home game this season.
Still, many are left doubting the once-promising remainder of OSU’s season.
“We went through a stretch of at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, Michigan State at home and then just at Purdue,” Matta said. “I don’t know how many teams in the country would have gone 2-2 in that stretch.
“If I stopped and worried about what everybody was saying about us, then I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
After playing at Purdue on Sunday, OSU had just one day of rest in between that loss and tonight’s game against the Illini. It is just the second time all year the Buckeyes have had to play on such short notice, the first coming in late December when they had just one day between wins against UNC-Asheville and Oakland.
Although the lack of rest isn’t ideal, the Buckeyes aren’t making any excuses.
“It is what it is, so I love it,” Matta said. “It’s the attitude I’m choosing of, we have to play so this is the greatest thing ever that we get to play again.”
With such little time to prepare, Matta said they will spend time looking at tape of both Illinois, as well as his team’s game against Purdue on Sunday, to prepare. This late in the season, though, preparation is fairly simple, the coach said.
“When you hit this stage of the season, you are who you are,” he said. “For the most part it’s about, with such a short turnaround, you have to get yourself fresh and you have to get yourself back ready to compete again.”
Although Illinois has been competitive in most, if not all, of its games this season, its 17-10 record isn’t what many thought it would be. With several players returning, including senior point guard Demetri McCamey, a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year, the Illini figured to be one of several teams vying for a conference championship.
But losses to Illinois-Chicago, Indiana and Northwestern have significantly tempered what were once-high expectations for the Illini. Now at 7-7 in Big Ten play and a conference championship out of the question, the Illini are left fighting for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid with just four games remaining in the regular season.
Despite their struggles, however, Matta isn’t taking them lightly.
“You look at (Mike) Davis, McCamey and (Mike) Tisdale,” Matta said of the Illinois seniors. “I mean, those guys have been in this league for four years, so from their experience, and talent-wise, I think it’s quite honestly a great basketball team.”
The Buckeyes and Fighting Illini are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.