On March 6, 2005, Ohio State picked up the first benchmark win of the Thad Matta era when Matt Sylvester’s 3-point shot with 5.1 seconds remaining handed No. 1 Illinois its first loss of the year on the final day of the regular season.
“I don’t even know if I had heard anything about Ohio State basketball at that point,” now-Buckeyes forward and Chicago native Sam Thompson said. “I knew about Ohio State football. I remember watching SportsCenter that day and the anchors talking about Illinois needing to watch out for Ohio State because Ohio State is a tough place to play and blah, blah, blah and me thinking in my mind, ‘I don’t know anything about the Ohio State program. This should be an easy win for Illinois.’ I remember being surprised.”
In the nine years following Matta’s first signature win in Columbus, the Buckeyes have gone from the hunters to the hunted. And for maybe the first time since Sylvester sank the Fighting Illini’s hopes of an undefeated season, the increased bullseye has taken a toll on Ohio State.
Riding a four-game losing streak, the Buckeyes have been handing out signature wins across the conference, with Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska all laying claim to upset victories against OSU. Getting each opponent’s best shot comes with the territory of being what is now one of the league’s pillar programs, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Ohio State, whose last win came 19 days ago.
“It’s something that’s always going to be a challenge for us being the program that we are and having the success that we’ve had in the last few years,” Thompson.
Self-inflicted issues have also hampered the 17th-ranked Buckeyes, who are now 15-4 on the year with a 2-4 mark in conference play.
Over the course of its four-game skid, OSU has committed combined 64 turnovers while shooting a meager 40.2 percent from the field. Those are the things that Thompson sees when he looks back at his team’s losing streak, as opposed to the steady string of teams who have circled their respective dates with the Buckeyes on their calendars.
“It’s not so much at this point getting people’s best shots as it is us not playing our best basketball,” Thompson said. “Us not having our minds right and ready to play. We’re making some mistakes that we shouldn’t be making. We’re doing some things that are uncharacteristic of our basketball team.”
In an effort to get back on track, Matta has contemplated making changes to his starting lineup, while the Buckeyes held a players-only meeting following Monday’s loss to the Cornhuskers. There may not be just one answer to what’s gone wrong for Ohio State, but that won’t stop Matta from tirelessly looking for solutions.
“We’ve tried from speed shooting to (practicing) every shot that a guy’s going to take at the pace that he’s going to take it,” Matta said. “I’m not deviating from the plan in terms of what we have to do and how we have to do it. I’ve tried a lot of approaches over the last few weeks -- I will say that.”
Perhaps in need of a signature win of its own at this juncture of the season, the Buckeyes will fittingly take on an Illinois team tonight that’s just as desperate as they are. The Fighting Illini are similarly riding a four-game losing streak and are tied with OSU for eighth-place in the Big Ten standings.
It may not truly be a “one-game” season for both teams tonight, as Thompson alluded to, but it’s safe to say that the latest battle between the Buckeyes and Illini will prove to be a pivotal point for both teams -- just as it was when they met in Columbus nine years ago.
“Everybody in this league is in one way or another, desperate,” Matta said. “You can’t take anything for granted. You’ve gotta go out and play.”