Entering Saturday’s Ohio State vs. Illinois showdown in Champaign, the Buckeyes were ranked eighth in the nation. They hadn’t beaten any team better than the 12-4 Great Danes of Albany, nor had they won a single true road game.
They still haven’t.
No. 11 Illinois obliterated the Buckeyes by a 74-55 margin.
The rout raises some major questions about how well-equipped Thad Matta’s team is to compete in the strongest Big Ten in years.
OSU is averaging 79.5 points per game in its wins, but Saturday’s flop drops the team's scoring mark in losses to 63 points a night. In other words, teams equipped to make super-scorer Deshaun Thomas work for his points (as Illinois did) have been able to lock down the rest of the Buckeye offense in the process.
Only a late spurt by Aaron Craft—after the game was well out of reach—gave Ohio State a second double-digit scorer in Champaign. Without some kind of reliable second option, the Buckeyes will be in deep trouble against physical Big Ten defenses.
Their own defense hasn’t exactly put on an exhibition against elite competition either. Duke, Kansas and Illinois have combined to shoot .487 from the field in handing OSU its three losses.
That deficiency stood out even more on Saturday, because the vaunted three-point gunners of the Illini shot a pedestrian 8-of-27. The Buckeyes lost by allowing Illinois to get to the rim—including a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing alley-oops—on easy plays that any of the Big Ten's contenders will be happy to make against them.
Perhaps the worst omen of all for Matta’s troops was their awful performance on the boards. Facing an Illinois team whose big men were supposed to be its glaring weakness, Ohio State lost the rebounding battle by a 39-28 margin.
If Amir Williams and company can’t perform better than that on the glass against Illinois, imagine what Derrick Nix’s Spartans or Trevor Mbakwe’s Gophers will do to them.
There is, of course, ample time to turn things around in Columbus, though games against unbeaten Michigan and the aforementioned Spartans in the next two weeks won’t make life any easier. Wednesday’s rout of Nebraska also shows that the Buckeyes will be just fine against lesser conference foes.
That said, Ohio State has done absolutely nothing in 2012-13 to prove that it belongs among the Big Ten’s best teams. It had better start soon, because the problems the Illini exposed on Saturday were not flukes.
If the Buckeyes don’t find some answers, they won’t even be a .500 team in conference play, let alone a title contender.