Jared Sullinger's fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes traveled to Champaign on Tuesday night for a Big Ten showdown with the Fighting Illini. What resulted was one of the most exciting inter-conference games of the college basketball season, as the home underdogs picked up 43 points from junior Brandon Paul to cap off a stunning upset. While the 79-74 final score may have been a surprise to some, tonight's game offered yet another friendly reminder that there are no gimmes in conference play. Above all, that's the lesson here.
Five takeaways from the game...
- Brandon Paul ate his Wheaties. Ridiculous. We knew Paul was a streaky shooter from deep, but this.. was... just...insane. 43 points. 28 in the second half. Eight three-pointers on ten attempts. And of course, the biggest dagger of the night; a shot-clock-beating heave to put the Illini up by two scores in the final minute. It was impossible to miss Paul's father, who was sitting a few rows behind the basket, sporting a sly grin most of the second half. And how could he not? This was one of the best individual performances we've seen all year. Hell, maybe the best. We're talking about a kid who entered the night with a 12.1 per game scoring average, shooting just 36.4% on his FGs and 28.4% from behind the arc. And he just TORCHED one of the best squads in the country. Well done.
- Ohio State's bench, or lack thereof, is a massive liability. Zero bench points. Rarely, if ever, is a number like that going to come from a winning team. So while it's pretty darn strange that neither team picked up a single bench point all game, the Buckeyes didn't have a perimeter scorer go off for 43 points either. We already knew that Thad Matta's team was basically a four-man unit disguised as a full ensemble cast, but tonight took things to a new level. Ohio State's Big Four (Sullinger, William Buford, Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas) was the entire team tonight, and that's not really something you want to see from a title contender. There's a fairly significant gap between getting a few sporadic buckets and then getting absolutely nothing from your subs over a 40-minute game. And tonight, the Buckeyes got squat from the bench. That can't continue to happen.
- Meyers Leonard needs to stay on the block and stop drifting. When the seven-footer crept out to the perimeter to set ball screens on Tuesday, bad things tended to happen. And while the emerging sophomore is quite athletic when you consider his size and all, he's still too clunky to operate effectively out to the perimeter and beyond. The thing is, with a soft touch and impressive mid-range game on the wings, the three-point line is the absolute furthest place Illinois should want its big man to be roaming around. I know we all want to be the next Dirk Nowitzki, but you're a seven-foot college basketball player for crap's sake. Get on the block and stay there.
- The Buckeyes' early struggles in league play might not be over. Believe it or not, the way Ohio State played tonight wasn't all that different from the handful of conference games it managed to barely hang on and win last season. Lost in the Buckeyes' 16-2 record last year was how many legitimately close battles they had against teams who were desperately trying to knock off the big dogs of the conference. So it's not entirely unfathomable to imagine the Buckeyes actually being 3-2 in the Big Ten at the moment. Matta's team simply found a way to pull out close games over and over with an eery level of consistency last year, and quite honestly, right now that doesn't appear to be the case. More tight games are surely on the horizon, and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes fare in the final minutes next time out.
- This might have been Illinois' best team defensive performance in YEARS. Look, I've seen a lot of Illinois hoops in the Bruce Weber era, and it's hard to remember a game over the last couple of seasons where his kids were this jacked up on the defensive end. It started early with Leonard's strong play against, and refusal to back down from, Jared Sullinger in the paint, and as Paul began to take things over it almost felt like all that intensity and momentum Illinois was getting on offense instantly carried over to the opposite end of the floor. One of the knocks on Weber over the years has been his team's questionable mental toughness and defensive intensity in big games, so it's quite surprising that these were the two most noticeable strengths tonight.