Scrapping Along

Today the OSU basketball team won their first game of the season against a ranked opponent, beating Indiana 82-70.  It’s a nice win, but it sure took a while to get it — a lot longer than we’ve come to expect during the Ohio State career of Coach Thad Matta.

This year’s Buckeyes squad has had a scrappy journey so far.  The Buckeyes have three key seniors — Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, and Amir Williams — and many fans have been disappointed in their play.  Williams, in particular, has been hard to figure out; he’s got the size, but seems to lack the competitive fire that has characterized some of Coach Matta’s other products, like David Lighty and Aaron Craft.  It is noteworthy, perhaps, that today’s win came in a game where Williams did not play at all.

Coach Matta is trying to mix the seniors in with some stellar freshman that include D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate, who led the Buckeyes in scoring today, redshirt freshman Kam Williams, and sophomore Marc Loving.  It’s fair to say that the Buckeyes are a work in progress, and the gears don’t really seem to be meshing yet.  Trying to make the pieces fit and motivate the players who don’t seem to be giving it their all, and win a few more key games in the process, will be one of Coach Matta’s toughest assignments.

The Buckeyes’ next game, against a pretty good Maryland team, will tell us a lot about whether today’s result was a fluke — or maybe the start of something better.  We’ll see whether Coach Matta can pull another rabbit out of a hat.

The New-Look Basketball Buckeyes

Tonight Kish and I will be heading to the Ohio State-Marquette game as the guests of two of our generous friends.  It will be my first chance to watch an Ohio State basketball team that will feature a dramatically new look.

For the first time in four years, the Buckeyes’ roster won’t include Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  (No Aaron Craft!  No Lenzelle Smith!  Sniff!)  Those two players were mainstays of a series of Ohio State teams that won Big Ten championships, Big Ten Tournaments, and compiled a pretty good NCAA Tournament record.

Now they are gone, and there are some new faces.  We’ll still have Slammin’ Sam Thompson at forward and steady Shannon Scott at the point, and Amir Williams and Trey McDonald will patrol the paint, but the identity of last year’s team was mostly set by Craft and Smith.  Now the Buckeyes will have to find a new identity — and given last year’s shooting woes, that might not be a bad thing.

This new-look Buckeyes team seems to have a lot of talent, but it’s raw.  There’s a lot of buzz about a group of freshmen that includes D’Angelo Russell, a guard who is rumored to be the lights-out outside shooter we’ve been waiting for since Jon Diebler graduated, guard Kam Williams, and forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, as well as Anthony Lee, a power forward who transferred from Temple.  I’m also interested in seeing how Marc Loving, a sophomore who played well at the beginning of last season but seemed to hit the freshman wall, has developed over the past year.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the Buckeyes’ first game, when they smeared UMass-Lowell, but in that contest the Buckeyes played ten-deep and pressed for much of the game.  Whether Ohio State plays the press against a Big East team like Marquette tonight — to say nothing of the non-conference games against perennial powers Louisville and North Carolina that are coming up — remains to be seen.  For now, we’re just trying to get to know this team and hoping that they fill the hole left by the departure of two fan favorites.  I’m guessing, though, that Thad Matta thinks he’s got something here.

Handling The Sunday Curse (II)

The Sunday curse has finally been exorcised!

IMG_3102Today, the Buckeyes played a tough game in the second half.  After trailing by six at halftime, the Buckeyes reacted to a well-timed timeout by coach Thad Matta, ratcheted down on defense, and played a great second stanza.  Riding a career performance from Aaron Craft — who simply would not be denied on his drives to the hoop — the Buckeyes topped no. 4 Michigan State, 68-60.  Evan Ravenel, Sam Thompson, Deshaun Thomas, and Amir Williams played very well.  Buckeyes fans can hope that this team is starting to find its heart.

The win gives the Buckeyes 20 wins for the year, and also means that they will have a winning record in the very tough Big Ten.  There’s still a long way to go, but beating Michigan State is a huge win for Ohio State.  Great win, Buckeyes!  Now, keep it up!

Last-Second Schott

IMG_3104It was a close game at the Schott tonight — closer than most Buckeyes fans would like, but playing Northwestern, with its high-motion, clock-burning, back-cutting offense, is always tough.  Late in the second half the Buckeyes pulled ahead and then pulled away, courtesy of gutty play by Deshaun Thomas and some thunderous Sam Thompson dunks.  Amir Williams and Lenzelle Smith Jr., pictured above, both played well, as did Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft.

We sat in great seats courtesy of our friends (thanks, Mike and Jo Ann!) and enjoyed a close, hard-fought contest.  The Big Ten is just incredibly tough this year.  Teams have to scrap and claw in every game, so every win should be savored.  Get the W, and now focus on Wisconsin, up next on Sunday afternoon at the always-tough Kohl Center in Madison.

Will The Sophomores Step Up?

Tonight the Ohio State University men’s basketball team plays its first Big Ten contest of the season.  The Buckeyes take on Nebraska at the Schott.

It will be the start of what promises to be a very challenging Big Ten season.  Michigan is undefeated and ranked second in the land, preseason favorite Indiana has lost only once and is ranked fifth, and Minnesota and Illinois each have lost only once and are ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively — and that list doesn’t even include perennial contenders Michigan State and Wisconsin.  The consensus view of analysts is that the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country.

What about the Buckeyes?  They are 10-2, but they’ve lost the only two games they’ve played against powerhouse teams, falling to Duke away and Kansas at home.  In both cases, a big problem was shooting the ball.  Ohio State plays solid defense but struggles to knock down shots in their half court offense.  Deshaun Thomas can be counted on to put points on the board, but the team lacks a consistent number two scorer.  Point guard Aaron Craft is a defensive whiz, but he struggles with his outside shot and the lack of Jared Sullinger in the middle has affected his opportunities to drive to the basket.  Guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. is a hustler but his offensive production is streaky.  Center Evan Ravenel — the only senior on the team — has decent offensive skills but is undersized.

That leaves Buckeye fans looking to members of Ohio State’s heralded sophomore class:  guard Shannon Scott, forwards LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson, and center Amir Williams.  All have shown improvement over their performance last year.  Scott seems to be playing with much more confidence, particularly on the offensive end, Thompson has developed a jump shot to go with his awe-inspiring dunks, and Ross has showed signs of having the all-around offensive game that makes Buckeye Nation wonder whether he can become another Deshaun Thomas.  Williams’ progress has been slower.  He doesn’t have a dependable “big man” offensive move, yet, but he is becoming a disruptive force on the defensive end with his shot-blocking abilities.

If Ohio State is going to contend for the Big Ten championship this year — and that’s a big if, with the depth of talent in the conference this year — it will be because these members of the sophomore class step up, contribute on the offensive end, and play tough on the road.  Their first test is tonight.

The Buckeyes Lose A Close One At Cameron

Last night the Ohio State Buckeyes fell to the Duke Blue Devils, 73-68, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  It was a tightly contested, entertaining match-up between two pretty good basketball teams.

The Buckeyes played excellent on-the-ball defense and rebounded the ball well to dominate the first half — even though they played most of the half with Deshaun Thomas, their top scorer, riding the bench with two fouls.  The Buckeyes were sharp and attacking and had Duke on its heels.  In the second half, however, Duke played much more aggressively at both ends of the court, and it paid off.  Duke hit big shots, Ohio State didn’t, and when Duke pulled ahead it made the free throws that salted the game away.

Duke’s Mason Plumlee is as good as advertised.  As expected, he dominated inside, scoring 21 points and corralling 17 rebounds.  The Blue Devils also got great contributions from Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly, and Quinn Cook, all of whom responded to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s halftime instructions and hit huge shots to help Plumlee put the Blue Devils on top.  As usual, Duke was helped by its awesome home court advantage, with great blue-painted fans screaming every time an Ohio State player touched the ball.

The Buckeyes’ main problem was shooting.  Thomas never seemed to get into a rhythm after his early foul trouble, and Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Shannon Scott all struggled with their shots.  Still, the game had lots of positives for the young Ohio State team.  The Buckeyes stood toe-to-toe with a basketball power on its legendary home court, kept its poise even when shots weren’t dropping, and played down to the wire in a game many pundits expected would be a Duke blowout.  Playing in a tough venue like Cameron Indoor Stadium will serve the Buckeyes well when the Big Ten season begins.  I also thought that Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel played pretty well inside — if you can say that when the opposing center scores 21 points — and their experience with Plumlee should help when they match up against Indiana’s stud center, Cody Zeller.  Sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson weren’t intimidated and showed they can make big contributions, and I suspect that Craft will use his off night as an incentive to play even harder the rest of the year.

It would have been nice to beat Duke, end its streak of home floor wins against non-conference opponents, and win the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes have nothing to be ashamed of.  Coach Matta and his staff will use the lessons from this game to teach and tinker and get the team ready for the Big Ten season.

Basketball In The Belly Of The Beast

Tomorrow night the Ohio State Buckeyes play basketball in the Belly of the Beast.  They will take on the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the legendary facility that is the toughest college basketball venue in the land.

Cameron is tough because the crowd is loud and proud, but mostly it’s tough because Duke always has great teams under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.  This year is no exception.  The Blue Devils are ranked second and they’ve already beaten two of the most highly regarded teams in the nation, Kentucky and Louisville.  After six games, the Blue Devils have five players averaging in double figures.  They are led by 6-10 center Mason Plumlee, who is netting almost 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks per game, and senior guard Seth Curry.  The Blue Devils have a lot of talent and play the tough, disciplined game you expect from a Coach K team.

The Blue Devils also have some extra motivation.  Last year they got pulverized by Ohio State at Value City Arena, 85-63, in a game where the Buckeyes could do no wrong.  That game, like this one, is part of the annual Big Ten-ACC challenge.  After winning the first ten Challenges, the ACC has lost three in a row to the Big Ten and got waxed in 2011.  Both conferences have lots of good teams this year, so fans can expect interesting match-ups between schools in two of the country’s top basketball conferences.

Duke clearly has the edge in tomorrow night’s contest, but the game should be an intriguing one.  Plumlee gives Duke a strong inside game that the Buckeyes lack; OSU big men Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams will have to play exceptionally well to keep the Buckeyes competitive.  OSU defensive whiz Aaron Craft will take on one of the Duke guards, but can the Buckeyes guard the rest of the Blue Devil squad?  At the other end of the court, Duke will have to figure out how to defend the Buckeyes’ top scorer, Deshaun Thomas, who can take the ball inside or pop from outside. Ohio State fans also are looking for Lenzelle Smith, Jr., one of the heroes of the Buckeyes’ run to the Final Four last year, to assert himself at the offensive end.

The Buckeyes are a young team that is still searching for its identity and its player rotation.  If Ohio State can give the Blue Devils a good game in front of thousands of face-painted Duke students who are screaming their brains out, that will tell us a lot about the toughness of Thad Matta’s Buckeye squad, and its prospects in the Big Ten and beyond.