Study the box scores and play-by-plays from every Illini basketball game this season and you’ll find about a half-dozen of them that make no sense whatsoever.
Start with Sunday’s 75-67 loss at 17th-ranked Ohio State.
You’ll see that Illinois did not score a single point in the final 10:11 minutes of the first half and extended that scoring drought another 1:20 of the second half. That’s more than 11 and a half minutes in the heart of the game without scoring a point. That’s hard to do.
Then you’ll see that Ohio State savaged the Illini on the boards, posting a 45-22 rebounding edge.
You will also note that Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop, the front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, had a sensational game with 35 points and 13 rebounds.
So it all adds up to a Buckeye blowout, right?
Wrong. Because often the facts of the game don’t add up for Illinois.
Despite all that went wrong, Sunday’s game was tied 63-63 when the Buckeyes called timeout with 3:50 to go. And with less than a minute to go, it was a one-possession game, the Buckeyes leading 70-67.
At that point, the strategy for the Illini is simple. Get a stop. Make a play. Pull the upset.
Instead, a basket by Ohio State’s brutish freshman center Kaleb Wesson, a miss from point-blank range by Michael Finke, two free throws by Bates-Diop, a missed 3 by Finke and another free throw by Bates-Diop. Final: Ohio State 75-67.
Sunday’s game was proof that Illinois has improved and that Illinois still has more work to do.
The Illini might be in first place in the “Close But No Cigar” league.
“We’re playing well,” coach Brad Underwood said after the game. "But we have to finish. We can beat anybody. But we have to take on the responsibility of the last three and a half minutes.”
And the final 10 minutes of the first half.
Illinois played about as good as it can the first 10 minutes of the game, opening a 30-15 lead by forcing Ohio State into turnovers and by hitting shots. Mark Alstork, whose offense has largely been missing all season, was suddenly a factor in the scoring column. The 19 points he scored Sunday was his season high since transferring from Wright State.
At the time the Illini grabbed that 30-15 lead, they’d been moving the ball beautifully, made four open 3-pointers and were cruising.
Then it got ugly.
“That was a frustrating first half,” Underwood said. “We do everything right. We move the ball, share it, we’re playing together and we make a few 3s. Then we fall in love with (shooting the 3). We forget who Leron Black is. We forget where the paint is. We don’t drive it.”
And while falling into a trance of turnovers, fouls and missing long shots, Illinois went 19 consecutive possessions without scoring.
“Then your lead is gone and suddenly you’re in a dogfight,” Underwood said.
To Illinois’ credit – and here is where this team has improved since its 25-point loss at Wisconsin on Jan. 19 – they joined the dogfight with teeth bared.
Ohio State grabbed the lead and tried to create a cushion, pulling ahead 50-44 midway through the second half. Rather than give in, Illinois answered despite playing the half with both Leron Black and Kipper Nichols in foul trouble. Nichols fouled out with 5:45 to go, Black with 3:21 on the clock.
Three-pointers by Trent Frazier and Aaron Jordan brought the Illini close, and a 3-point play by Alstork got the lead back, 53-52 with 8:50 to go.
Illinois built the lead to 56-52, but silly fouls, missed free throws, and the punishment Ohio State inflicted on the glass were too much.
Underwood and his staff are scouring the country for a big man who can help Illinois on the glass. The help is badly needed, as Underwood confessed post-game.
“I’m frustrated because we’re a team that has to rebound the basketball, and we’re not getting anything at all from our frontcourt guys.”
Illinois played four big men. Black had four rebounds, Finke three, Nichols two, Greg Eboigbodin none. That’s nine between those four players.
Ohio State’s Bates-Diop and Wesson combined for 23 rebounds.
The box score from Sunday’s game doesn’t make much sense. Had Illinois made another stop or two, then converted at the other end, it would have made even less sense.
It’s not the first time this season that has happened.