The Fighting Illini still haven’t secured a spot in the field of 68, and time is starting to become their enemy. A win over the No. 3 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes would definitely give them a boost they desperately need.
Thad Matta was hit with so many “what went wrong?” questions on Monday that it was as if his Ohio State team’s record was 2-25 instead of 25-2.
A day after the second-ranked Buckeyes fell 76-63 at No. 8 Purdue, the seventh-year coach tried to put things in perspective.
“From the tone of this, I thought we lost a bowl game today,” he said with a laugh, poking fun at the dark cloud that settles over the city when the football team infrequently falters.
The Buckeyes aren’t faced with a long winter of grieving over a cataclysmic loss. They get little more than 48 hours before hosting Illinois (17-10, 7-7 Big Ten) on Tuesday night.
So, coach, how will you get your team ready for the Illini?
“We’ve got to sift through all the adversity and find a way …” he said, his voice trailing off.
Then he laughed.
In Matta’s way of thinking, the Buckeyes have played well enough to still be unbeaten except for a few mistakes – and two hot hands. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half to lead then-No. 13 Wisconsin back from a 15-point deficit on Feb. 12 to hand the Buckeyes their first loss, 71-67. Taylor hit shots with hands in his face, from several feet behind the arc and while off balance.
After the Buckeyes beat Michigan State – a top-10 team at the outset of the season – on Tuesday, the Buckeyes were beaten again by a guard who couldn’t miss. On Sunday, Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore scored a career-high 38 points in leading No. 8 Purdue to a 76-63 upset.
Moore hit one layup by avoiding defender David Lighty with a gymnastic move that would be worth a gold medal – hanging in the air while flipping the ball high off the backboard and over Lighty’s outstretched arms. Another time, late in the game with Ohio State trailing by just four, Moore bobbled the ball but still collected it, set himself, and swished a 3 to end any Ohio State hopes.
“Maybe two of the best performances in college basketball this year,” Matta said of Taylor and Moore. “And as my luck always has it, I had a first-row seat to watch it.”
Despite the-sky-is-falling talk on sports call-in shows, it wasn’t as if the Buckeyes just folded up like an old card table. They have lost to two elite teams that are each unbeaten at home. In both games, the crowds were rabid and right on top of the Buckeyes.
“Have you ever been in two crazier environments?” Matta said. “As loud as those two places have been, for a guy who hears nothing, my ears hurt yesterday during the game.”
The Buckeyes won at Illinois 73-68 on Jan. 22 in their first big test of the season in the Big Ten, running their record to 20-0.
Illini coach Bruce Weber knows something about how the pressure can build on a top team. His 2004-05 team won its first 29 games before losing the regular-season finale on a late 3-point shot at Ohio State.
“When you have an undefeated team, the pressure does mount. Every possession it just seems to get bigger and bigger,” he said Monday. “I’ve said many times, (the Buckeyes’) poise has been so good. If anything, maybe with the pressure, their poise wasn’t quite as good. They turned it over yesterday. They seemed a little more erratic. It was Purdue’s defense, the intensity, the crowd – it got to them a little bit. Which it hadn’t gotten to them (before).”
But Matta believes the losses are merely a result of an opponent playing inspired and flawless basketball – and a lack of poise or toughness by his team.
“I’m not, like, panicked,” he said. “We’re 25-2.”
Now 12-2 in the Big Ten and ahead of Purdue by a game, Ohio State plays three of its last four at home. The only road trip is to Penn State (14-12, 7-8).
Even though the Buckeyes have not been perfect in their losses, Weber said even if they had been they still might not have escaped unbeaten.
“In the long haul, to me,” he said, “they just played good teams that were able to out-tough ‘em, outplay them for a day.”
Now he and his Illini will try to become the third team in 28 games to do that.
Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.