Pointing Toward Some Buckeye Basketball

It’s football season, sure . . . but college basketball is just around the corner.  The Buckeye roundballers open the season on November 9 against Marquette on the U.S.S. Yorktown, of all places, and will be trying to follow up on an excellent season that saw the team reach the Final Four before falling to Kansas in a heart-breaker.  The Buckeyes will need to replace their leader and mainstay in the middle, Jared Sullinger, and long-time starter William Buford, but the talent on the roster seems to give them shot at doing so.

The team begins with three stalwart players who really emerged last year:  scoring and rebounding machine Deshaun Thomas, point guard and defensive stopper Aaron Craft, and do-everything guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  All three played significant minutes and made big contributions to last year’s success.  To replace Sullinger in the middle, the Buckeyes will look to 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams, a shot blocker who showed promise is limited action last year, and senior Evan Ravenel, who backed up Sullinger.  The other spot might be occupied by point guard Shannon Scott, who will need to improve his shooting this year, jump-out-of-the-gym alley-ooper Sam Thompson, or silky smooth shooter LaQuinton Ross.  Add in freshman Amedeo Della Valle, from Alba, Italy, and you give coach Thad Matta lots of pieces to work with.

At Ohio State, Matta has been a master at matching his scheme to his players.  Will he move Craft to shooting guard and start Scott at the point?  With the depth and quickness the Buckeyes have, will he play an up tempo, pressing game that relies on Williams’ shot-blocking prowess to erase any breakaway efforts by opponents?  To add to the intrigue, the Buckeyes play an interesting preseason schedule that features not only Marquette but also games at Duke and a rematch with Kansas — followed by the always tough Big Ten schedule.

It’s going to be another interesting season for OSU basketball fans.

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Deshaun’s Decision

As expected, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has declared for the NBA draft.  I’m not surprised by his decision.  He took a physical beating in every game this season and probably decided if he was going to take that kind of abuse he may as well get paid for it.  I wish him well and thank him for his fine play for the Buckeyes.

Obviously, I’m more excited about Deshaun Thomas’ decision to return to Ohio State for his junior year.  This past season he went from a one-dimensional, shot-launching part-time player to a crucial part of the team that made it all the way to the Final Four.  He brought so much to the table — a scorer’s mentality and creative shot-making, an inside-outside offensive game, tremendous rebounding abilities, and significantly improved defense and interior passing — and was just a lot of fun to watch.  If his improvement from his sophomore to junior year is comparable his development this year, Thomas could compete for leading scorer and rebounder honors in the Big Ten next year.

Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. give Ohio State a solid core of tested players for coach Thad Matta to build around.  He’ll work to fit Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and others into the mix, and the result likely will be a team that looks different from this year’s post-oriented squad.  With the athletes on the team, might the Buckeyes go up-tempo on offense and press on defense, and look for Williams to use his shot-blocking skills to erase mistakes if the press is broken?  The potential options are intriguing.

I imagine that another year working in the weight room and sharpening all facets of his game would help Thomas’ NBA prospects — but I don’t know enough about the NBA to say for sure.  What I do know is that Thomas’ election to come back is very welcome news for Ohio State basketball fans.

A Tough Loss, But A Great Season

The Ohio State-Kansas game lived up to its billing — a tough slugging match between two heavyweights.  Unfortunately for Ohio State (and me), Kansas took the Buckeyes’ best shot and came back strong to win.  All credit to the Jayhawks for hustling and scrapping and getting the rebounds and loose balls that allowed them to turn the tide in the second half.

Obviously, I’m sorry that the Buckeyes could not hold their lead and could not make their goal of the national championship game.  Their loss, however, does not take away from what has been a wonderful season for the team and its fans.  This is a group that battled through adversity and tough stretches and came back to play extremely well down the stretch and in the NCAA Tournament.  Much as I would like to have seen the Buckeyes win and get the chance to knock off Kentucky, there is no shame in losing by two points in a hard-fought game to a basketball powerhouse like Kansas.

I’d like to thank William Buford and Jared Sullinger for coming back to play another year, when they could have gone to the NBA and made a lot of money this year instead.  I’ve relished watching Aaron Craft play, and Deshaun Thomas develop into a much more well-rounded player, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. make crucial shots when the team needed them most.  I’ve enjoyed watching Shannon Scott and Amir Williams and Sam Thompson and catching glimpses of their bright futures.  And, I’ve appreciated the hard work of Thad Matta and his coaching staff as they have gotten the team ready to play, game after game.

An evenly matched contest like the one played tonight is a game of inches; the fact that things didn’t bounce the Buckeyes’ way at the end doesn’t detract from a great year.  I know it’s tough for the players and coaches, who were hoping for something even more; it will be some time before the sting eases.  In the meantime, I just want to say thanks for lots of great basketball, Buckeyes!

 

The Final Four. Period.

The Buckeyes are going to the Final Four!  Even as I type those words, I find them hard to believe — and richly satisfying, all at the same time.

What a fine, if foul-plagued, game this was!  Ohio State took the game to Syracuse from the first tip.  They played a smart game against the Syracuse zone, and once they figured out how the officials were going to call the game, they tailored their approach accordingly.  The Buckeyes attacked, they rebounded, and they hounded Syracuse into a series of turnovers when the game was on the line.

Virtually every Buckeye made a significant contribution in this game.  Jared Sullinger overcame first half foul trouble and dominated the game in the second half every time he touched the ball.  Aaron Craft was a hustling hurricane, Deshaun Thomas made some great passes and clutch shots, and the Buckeye bench — Sam Thompson, Evan Ravenel, Shannon Scott, and particularly Amir Williams — made the win possible.  But I particularly want to commend William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. — Buford, because he kept fighting and just wouldn’t quit, and Smith, who was fearless in putting the ball up and taking the ball to the rack.

It’s so rare for a team to make it to the Final Four.  So much depends on match-ups, and who is hot and who is not, and how the ball bounces.  It’s time to enjoy this great accomplishment, and revel in the cool of the evening.

Onward, And Upward

It was a nail-biter, and Gonzaga came back as you knew they would, but this afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes ultimately prevailed and are moving on to the Sweet Sixteen.

This was a very good win against a very good team.  The Buckeyes were out of sorts early and were getting killed on the boards.  Shouted epithets rang through Webner House as the Bulldogs got put-backs and second-chance points after grabbing offensive rebounds.  But with Jared Sullinger on the bench with two fouls, the Buckeyes clawed their way back.  Amir Williams gave Ohio State a presence in the middle, and Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas brought the Buckeyes back to lead at the half.  In the second half, the terrific Craft led the way and the Buckeyes built up a 10-point lead.  Then, Gonzaga wisely went to a zone, the Buckeyes were thrown off stride, and their lead ultimately dwindled to nothing.  But Ohio State stuck at it, made their free throws, and finally got the crucial rebounds.  The final score was 73-66, but the game was a lot closer than that.

This may have been the gutsiest effort by Ohio State this year.  They played, and beat, an experienced team that is a perennial NCAA Tournament contender.  Equally important, it was a true team effort — perhaps the most total team effort of the season.  Four players scored in double figures and the Buckeyes got quality contributions off the bench from Amir Williams and Shannon Scott.  It was good to see William Buford on the line at the end, knocking down free throws to ice the game.  Buford deserves some love and respect from Buckeyes fans for coming back for his senior year when he easily could have gone pro and providing the team’s most dependable outside shooting.

So now the Buckeyes get to sit back and wait to see whether they play Florida State or Cincinnati in the round of 16 — where the Buckeyes have fallen the last two years.  Let’s hope they take a few moments tonight to reflect on and enjoy a job well done today.

Another Battle For The Big Ten Lead

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor for a game with Michigan.  It will be a battle for the Big Ten lead.  The Buckeyes are 10-3, tied for first with Michigan State with the Wolverines just behind at 9-4.

Playing with first place in the Big Ten on the line has gotten to be old hat for the Buckeyes.  Virtually every game they’ve played lately has been with a conference contender, and for the most part — that is, with the noticeable exception of a rank performance at home against Michigan State — the Buckeyes have performed well under pressure.

The conventional wisdom is that playing lots of high-pressure games is a positive.  The Buckeyes now have many players who’ve made key free throws, clutch buckets, and important defensive plays with crucial games on the line and in hostile arenas.  When you reach the one-and-done point of the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament, it’s nice to have that kind of big-game experience to fall back on.

Michigan presents another tough challenge.  The Wolverines are undefeated at home this season and their Big Ten record shows they are a good team.  In their first game, the Buckeyes shut down Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway, Jr. struggled with his shot, and the Buckeyes pulled away in the second half to win 64-49.  Tonight Aaron Craft will have to guard Michigan’s excellent point guard Trey Burke without getting into foul trouble and the Buckeyes will have to figure out how to score against the zone defense that the Wolverines are likely to play at some point during the game.  We’ll also be watching to see how Coach Thad Matta substitutes and whether freshman center Amir Williams gets some court time after a good showing against Minnesota.

Games like tonight’s contest will help to toughen up the Buckeyes, regardless of the outcome.  Since the opponent this evening is the hated Team Up North, let’s hope the outcome is a big win that allows the Buckeyes to take another step toward the Big Ten regular season championship.

 

The Buckeyes Hit The Road, To Jayhawk Land (Cont.)

Jared Sullinger sat out today’s game, and Ohio State fell short and suffered its first loss of the season.  Kansas shot the ball well, Thomas Robinson was a beast down low, and the Jayhawks pulled away from the Buckeyes at the end, 78-67.

However, I can’t be too discouraged by the Buckeyes’ play today.  Clearly, the Buckeyes’ offense was out of sync without Sullinger in the game, and they are still adjusting to his absence in the middle.  Nevertheless, and although Ohio State just could not buy a bucket in the first half, they hung in the game and consistently answered the Kansas surges with a surge of their own.  Deshaun Thomas, and in the second half William Buford and Aaron Craft, made some big buckets to keep the Buckeyes within range — but Ohio State just could not get over the hump.  Credit Kansas’ defense, and also their making some clutch buckets to stop Ohio State runs.

I liked the fact that the Buckeyes did not quit and kept hustling, and I also like the fact that the Buckeyes’ two highly touted freshmen, Amir Williams and Shannon Scott, played important minutes in a hostile arena.  For all of the Ohio State players, this was a game that will toughen them up and get them ready for the Big Ten season.  They aren’t going to play in many venues as loud and tough as Allen Fieldhouse.

I do, however, have one other thought after today’s game:  Jared, get well soon!