The Big Ten In The Big Dance

The NCAA Tournament is put up or shut up time.  All year we hear about teams and conferences, and then March Madness comes and separates the pretenders from the contenders.

This year, there’s been a lot of talk — from people not named Charles Barkley — about the Big Ten being the best conference in basketball.  Seven teams from the Old Conference made it to the Big Dance, and so far they’re represented the league well.  The Big Ten’s record after the round of 64 is 6-1, with the only hiccup being Wisconsin’s dismal performance against Mississippi in a game where the Badgers simply could not put the ball into the basket.  The Big Ten’s top-seeded teams, Indiana and Ohio State, both won by wide margins, Michigan State and Michigan played well in convincing wins, Illinois survived some poor shooting to beat Colorado, and Minnesota spanked UCLA in a surprising upset.  Other conferences that were touted prior to the tournament, such as the Big East and the Mountain West, did not fare so well during the first round of play.

The great thing about the NCAA Tournament, of course, is that everything can turn on a dime.  All of these Big Ten teams could lose their next game — and if that happens the conference will be viewed as an overrated paper tiger.  For now, the Big Ten has 6 teams in the round of 32, and that’s not bad.

Advertisements

Hoping To Bounce The Orange

When the NCAA Tournament field of 64 has been reduced to eight, typically only power programs from big conferences remain.  That’s true again this year, where the Elite Eight includes two teams each from the SEC, the Big 12, and the Big East, and one each from the Big Ten and the ACC.

The Ohio State Buckeyes will hope to carry the Big Ten flag forward when they play tonight against the Big East’s best team, the Syracuse Orange.  It will be a battle of two seasoned, highly regarded teams that spent the entire season ranked in the top ten.

Syracuse beat another Big Ten team, Wisconsin, to get to this point.  The Badgers almost pulled that game out because they canned 14 three-pointers shooting over the fabled Syracuse zone that Coach Jim Boeheim has perfected.  That’s not likely to happen tonight, because Ohio State simply doesn’t have the three-point shooters to take that approach unless William Buford gets hot.

The Buckeyes will be looking to break down the zone in other ways, by trying to get the ball to Deshaun Thomas at the elbow of the lane and have him shoot mid-range jumpers before Syracuse players can rotate over or dish to Jared Sullinger and others if holes in the zone open up.  Thomas has been a stud in the Tournament, and the Buckeyes hope his strong showing will continue.

The other key on offense will be rebounding.  The Buckeyes have been a good rebounding team, and teams that play zone — Syracuse included — often get outrebounded because they can’t get a body on every offensive player when the ball comes off the glass.  Syracuse’s rebounding challenges were compounded when they lost their big man, Fab Melo, for the tournament.  Ohio State will need to crash the boards, and that means Sullinger, Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. will need to hustle and scrap for put-back buckets on the offensive end.

Syracuse has a lot of long and talented players who can run, shoot, and finish near the rim. They like to play up-tempo and score fast-break points off turnovers.  They are led in scoring by forward Kris Joseph and guard Dion Waiters, but the match-up I’ll have my eye on will be Ohio State’s Aaron Craft against Syracus guard Scoop Jardine.  Jardine is terrific, and Syracuse counts on him to get the ball to the players who can finish.  Craft will be trying to disrupt that and will be playing his tremendous pressure on the ball style to do so.  If Craft can get Jardine out of his rhythm and out of his game without getting himself into foul trouble, the Buckeyes will have a chance to move forward.

In the Elite Eight you expect to see tough games between great teams.  We’ll see one tonight.

 

Eightward Bound

It was a battle, and the outcome was long in doubt, but Ohio State pulled out a win over Cincinnati tonight. Through their 81-66 victory, the Buckeyes advance to the Elite Eight and avoided getting knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen for the third year in a row.

This was a tough, tough win — just what you would expect in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.  The Buckeyes rode the stellar play of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger to a 12-point halftime lead.  Thomas, in particular, was spectacular, making shots from all over the floor as the Bearcats tried desperately to find someone who could match up with him.

The second half was another story, however.  The Buckeyes saw their lead vanish as Cincinnati hustled, forced turnovers, and shot lights out.  Credit to the Bearcats for playing a gutty game and not giving up.

The Buckeyes fell behind, but dug down deep, shut down the Bearcats, and pulled away.  Sullinger and Thomas were great, but Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. provided the energy and the gritty defense that frustrated the Bearcats and allowed the Buckeyes to rebuild their lead and cruise to victory. Craft seemed to be just about everywhere, knocking balls loose, hitting the floor, and driving the Bearcat big men and guards alike to distraction with his quick hands.

Smith, on the other hand, made some great passes, got some crucial buckets, and helped to shut down the Bearcats when the game was in the balance.  This game showed why Coach Thad Matta likes to have Lenzelle in the lineup.  When he is playing his game, he contributes in so many different ways.

Both Smith and Craft contributed on offense in the second half; Smith had 15 points, and Craft ended with 11, most of which came on free throws.  William Buford, on the other hand, probably is glad he’ll never see another Sweet Sixteen game — he seemed out of sorts all game and could not get the ball to go down.  We’ll hope he’s gotten the game out of his system, because we’ll need him to score in the next game.

So, the Buckeyes advance to play Syracuse.  They’ll need to play well and shoot better from the free throw line, but we’ll worry about that game later.  For now, the Buckeyes have moved on and knocked Cincinnati out of the tournament in the process.

Somewhere, Jerry Lucas is smiling.

 

Working To Make The Sixteen Sweet

Tomorrow night the Buckeyes play an NCAA Tournament regional semifinal game against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.  The round of games is called the Sweet Sixteen, but recently it has had a decidedly sour taste for Ohio State.

This is the third year in a row the Buckeyes have made it this far — and the last two years they went no farther.  In 2010 they lost a heart-breaker to Tennessee, 76-73; last year they arguably had the best team around and fell in a stomach-churning loss to Kentucky, 62-60.  The close scores made the losses more agonizing, and Buckeyes fans don’t want to endure another.

Ohio State and Cincinnati are in the same state but don’t play each other often.  Nevertheless, they have a rich basketball history.   Cincinnati beat the Buckeyes in two NCAA championship games 50 years ago, during the Jerry Lucas era.  Some of my friends would dearly like to get belated payback this year.

It’s safe to say that the participants in this year’s game won’t be thinking much about Lucas and the Buckeyes of the early ’60s.  They’ll be focused on stopping a UC team that is tough, scrappy, and balanced, with four players who average in double figures.  The team bounced back after a humiliating loss to crosstown rival Xavier — in a game that ended in an awful bench-clearing brawl — to play well in their conference and advance to the Big East title game.  UC’s experience in the Big East means they won’t be intimidated by the setting or the opponent.

As for the Buckeyes, they can’t afford another start like they had against Gonzaga, which dominated the boards early and got Jared Sullinger into foul trouble.  They’ll need to rebound better and will be looking for Lenzelle Smith to crash the glass and bring hustle on defense.  They’ll want to get the terrific contributions from Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft that they got against Gonzaga.  Finally, they’ll need big games from Sullinger and, especially, William Buford, who will be looking to exorcise some demons from last year’s loss to Kentucky.

The game tips tomorrow night at (ugh!) 9:45 p.m.  Already, the insides of the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation are churning.