Be Careful What You Wish For

After 13 seasons, Thad Matta will no longer be coaching the Ohio State University men’s basketball team.  Matta and OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith announced the decision at a joint press conference today.

It’s not clear whether the decision is a firing, or a retirement, or more likely a little bit of both.  Coach Matta has had some significant health issues, and those health issues may have affected his coaching.  After having an enormous amount of success for most of his Ohio State career, the Buckeyes had fallen on hard times lately, and this past season was his worst one yet.  Recruiting, which once was Matta’s forte, also has been a struggle of late, and it may be another aspect of the coaching job that may have been affected by Matta’s physical condition.

Many Ohio State fans have been calling for Matta’s head.  I wasn’t one of them.  I think he was a total class act who turned around the Buckeye basketball program and brought in some great players; by virtue of the great results he achieved for most of his Ohio State career, I thought he deserved a chance to rebuild the program if he was so inclined.  In my view, Matta’s farewell remarks at the press conference today, shown below, demonstrate exactly why he was such a good coach at OSU, and why he remains a terrific human being.

Some times you need to be careful what you wish for.  I hope the Ohio State fans who urged that Matta be discharged because they thought it will be easy to get another top coach to come to Columbus don’t end up ruing the day that they got their wish.  In the meantime, I wish Coach Matta good health and good fortune, for a good guy.

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The Villain Comes Home

IMG_0483Evan Turner — improbably nicknamed The Villain by teammate Mark Titus — came back to Ohio State tonight to see his jersey retired and hung from the rafters.  Turner had a storied career with the Buckeyes, won National Player of the Year honors, and made a killer three-point buzzer-beater to beat Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.  Tonight he gave a heartfelt speech about his teammates, his coaches, and especially his Mom helping him along the way.

Oh, and the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines, too.  A good time was had by all.

Back From The Bakery

Every year, the Ohio State roundballers may as well start out playing in a bakery, because their opponents typically are cupcakes as far as the eye can see.  The Buckeyes work out the kinks, figure out what kind of rotation they might use, and beat the living snot out of the directional schools, the acronym schools, and the schools with “St.” in their name.

IMG_3322All of that ends, though, when Ohio State plays in the annual Big Ten-ACC challenge.  Then, the Buckeyes play a real, live, major conference foe, often on the road, and don’t win just because they have better athletes.  Then, finally, the Buckeyes need to run an effective offense, need to close the passing lanes and keep their hands up on defense, and need to protect the ball when they are coming up-court.

This year the abrupt change from cupcake-land to ball-busting opponent is even more pronounced than normal, because Ohio State has drawn Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC challenge.  Wait a minute, you say — Louisville in the ACC?  You’re right, it’s weird — but not as weird as Maryland, a founding member of the ACC, competing in the Big Ten-ACC challenge for the Big Ten.

Anyway, this will be a very tough game for the Buckeyes.  Ohio State starts three seniors, but they really are fielding a young team that consists largely of freshman.  The newbies have never played in an atmosphere like Louisville — much less faced the kind of withering pressure the Cardinals typically bring to bear.  And while the Buckeyes have played ten deep, what kind of depth do they have, really, when they are matched up against other elite players who will try to run them ragged?

I don’t know how Ohio State will fare when the tip occurs at 9:30 tonight, but I do know this:  I’m glad to see the Buckeyes play a tough team that will challenge them for the whole 40 minutes.  This is the kind of game that will serve Ohio State well when the young Buckeyes go on the road in the always-tough Big Ten.  If the Buckeyes can represent and bring home a win for the Big Ten, so much the better.

The Comeback Kids

Because I can’t use my left foot or get exercise in the conventional way, I’m trying to get my blood pumping by watching the Ohio State basketball team. So far, my plan is working like a charm.

Today the Buckeyes played Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State stunk up the joint at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second and were getting embarrassed, 48-30. My blood pressure was spiking at the pitiful performance, with flushed cheeks and spittle and epithets flying.

But then, improbably, a mop-topped bean pole spurred the Buckeyes. With Amedeo Della Valle hustling his brains out, and LaQuinton Ross making just about every shot he put up, and Aaron Craft playing the tough D that is his trademark, the Buckeyes came back to win, 71-67. That’s a 41-19 run to close out the game — and it was fitting that Della Valle iced the victory by coolly making four free throws with the game on the line.

How do you explain this team? They disappear, then come roaring back. They can’t make a free throw for most of the game, but as the clock winds down they can’t miss. They seem to lose their composure, but as the game ends it’s the other team that is red-faced and stunned.

So, the Buckeyes move on. Tomorrow they play Michigan. The Buckeyes had better bring their A game for all 40 minutes tomorrow, because if they fall behind the Wolverines by 18 there’s no coming back.

Survive And Advance

For the first time in years, the Ohio State Buckeyes played on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. Today they were fortunate to win a squeaker, 63-61, over a game Purdue Boilermakers team that gave the Buckeyes all they could handle.

The Buckeyes have been a cipher for months, and today was no different. For stretches they look putrid, then then look pretty good. They can’t make a three-pointer, and their free throw shooting is abysmal. Today they were 1-14 from behind the arc — that’s a nifty 7.1% for the mathematicians out there — and a limp 64% from the free throw line. Once again, they missed free throws that could have put the game away. They also turned the ball over 12 times, and a lot of those turnovers were simple mental mistakes. It’s got to be maddening for Coach Thad Matta when March rolls around and those mistakes keep being made.

With such miserable shooting, it’s amazing that Ohio State won today’s game. If they’d played a better team — Purdue finished last in the Big Ten — they probably would have lost. But the Buckeyes survived and advanced, which is all you can ask for when tournament time rolls around. We can be sure of one thing, though: if they don’t play better, they aren’t going to advance very far. Maybe this game is the one you somehow win when everything goes wrong, and now everything will click into place. Or, maybe this is just another reflection of a team that can’t shoot straight.

Aaron And Lenzelle Go Out With A Win

Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. played their last home game today. They’re seniors who’ve been among the winningest basketball Buckeyes of all time. In their first three seasons, they’ve made it to three Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and one Final Four.

This year, though, has been a struggle. The Buckeyes started 15-0, then hit the wall during the Big Ten season. Going into today’s game, the Buckeyes were 9-8 in the Big Ten and had lost two in a row to Penn State and Indiana, two of the conference’s worst teams. For the first time in years, Ohio State has been painful to watch on offense. They’re jittery and always seem to be out of sync and unwilling to take an open shot in the flow of the game.

No one wanted to see these seniors go out on a home loss — and I’m happy to report that they didn’t. Somehow, some way, despite missing a bunch of free throws down the stretch, the Buckeyes hung on and pulled out a win over Michigan State, which is clearly one of the Big Ten’s best. As always, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and Aaron Craft were keys. Smith led the Buckeyes in rebounding. Craft had steal after crucial steal, disrupted the Michigan State ballhandlers, and had a key dive for a loose ball that helped to nail the Spartans’ coffin shut as the seconds ticked down. Smith and Craft both played their trademark hands-on-the-floor defense at the end of the game, as the Buckeyes held the Spartans scoreless and managed to eke out just enough points to win.

I don’t think this team has the offensive ability to go far in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament — they seem to have forgotten how to shoot free throws, among other things — but they are tough, and Smith and Craft set the toughness tone. I’ll miss these seniors, who have been so successful and who have meant so much to the Ohio State program. They have been good students, good representatives of The Ohio State University, and good people.

Good luck, Aaron and Lenzelle, in whatever you do: it’s been a pleasure watching you!

A Big Early Season (And Late Night) Match-Up

Tonight the Ohio State men’s basketball team plays Michigan State at East Lansing. The Big Ten season is still very young — the Buckeyes and Spartans have each played only two conference games — but this game is shaping up to be a big one in a conference that many people consider to be the premier basketball conference in the country.

Ohio State is ranked third in the country, whereas Michigan State is ranked fifth. Both teams have senior leadership. Both teams are experienced in playing big games and know how to win them. Both teams have great coaches. Both teams have some excellent players. For Michigan State, it’s Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, and the unguardable Adreian Payne, who always seems to make a crucial three-point shot or put-back basket. For Ohio State, it’s Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Both teams are deep. Michigan State plays great offense; Ohio State plays great defense.

It’s a wonderful match-up, all the way up and down the lineups. Who wouldn’t want to see Aaron Craft and Keith Appling go head to head, or watch the defense-oriented Buckeyes try to figure out a way to guard Adreian Payne? Who wouldn’t want to see whether the Buckeyes can avenge the football team’s bitter loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game? You have to give Michigan State, which has played a much tougher schedule than the Buckeyes and is playing at home, the clear edge, but this game should tell the Buckeye Nation a lot about how good this team might actually be.

So why in blue blazes does the game have to start at 9 p.m.? C’mon, Big Ten — how about having some pity on us working folks who need to get up early tomorrow?