Basketball, Or Free Throw-Shooting Contests

The NCAA apparently doesn’t believe in the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — at least, when it comes to college basketball.

This year the NCAA decided to change the rules by which the game is officiated.  Although many of us love college basketball and the NCAA Tournament keeps hitting new heights of popularity, the NCAA was concerned that the college game had become too physical and too low scoring.  So, this year, officials will be cracking down on “handchecks,” where defenders touch the offensive player in an effort to maintain contact and control.  The idea is to make the game more free flowing, allowing skilled offensive players to dart up and down the floor, making acrobatic dunks and shots, unimpeded by pesky defensive players.  Scores would rise, the theory went, and the game would have more dash and flair.

On Tuesday I watched my first game officiated under the new approach, and it sucked.  The Ohio State Buckeyes played the Ohio University Bobcats, and the game quickly devolved into a whistle-blowing and free throw-shooting affair.  The Buckeyes won, 79-69, after shooting 51 free throws.  51!  OU would shoot from the outside and make or miss, then Ohio State would come downcourt, try to penetrate the lane, an OU player would touch the Buckeye ball handler, and a whistle would blow.  The game was a leaden affair with no rhythm or flow and lasted about 20 minutes longer than normal. Five OU players fouled out.

Free throws can be exciting in certain contexts — say, at the end of a close game — but watching 51 of them being shot makes you feel like you’re hanging out at the local YMCA.  I cringe when I think of what Big Ten games will be like, where the play tends to be more physical and some referees are eager to showboat whenever they get the chance.  The depth of rosters will be sorely tested.  How many players will still be eligible to play at the end of games?

College basketball coaches and NCAA people are now saying that this year is likely to be a transition year, where lots of fouls are called as players adjust to the new rules.  Fans should just prepare themselves — it’s going to be a frustrating, free throw-filled year.

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Survive, Advance, and LaQuinton

The Buckeyes don’t make it easy on their fans.  But they are still dancing!

The win tonight against Arizona was a tough, hard-fought battle — just what you would expect from two great programs and two deep teams.  Arizona looked very good for most of the game and built a big lead in the first half.  But the Buckeyes rode Sam Thompson and Deshaun Thomas — whose icy shots kept Ohio State within range — and stayed close in the first half.  The Buckeyes then played nails defense to start the second half, Aaron Craft made some great plays, the Buckeyes got out to a lead, built it, and then held on as their latest clutch shooter, LaQuinton Ross, made bucket after bucket to keep the Buckeyes ahead.  Ross eventually made the game winner that advanced the Buckeyes to the Elite 8.

I give lots of credit to Arizona, which played a tremendous, gutty game — as befits a gutty team with a gutty coach.  But the Buckeyes made the shots and now get the chance to move on, and the Wildcats have to go home.

LaQuinton Ross is my new hero . . . but boy, watching these games is tough duty.

The Baby-Faced Assassin

Thanks to Aaron Craft, the Ohio State Buckeyes have survived and advanced, and my heart rate has just about returned to something approaching its normal rhythm.

IMG_3101What a great game this was, and what an impossible game to watch if you were a fan of either team!  Iowa State had the advantage early, and the Buckeyes clawed their way back.  Ohio State took control in the second half, Iowa State counterpunched, and then the Buckeyes rolled out to a big lead.  But then, it was Iowa State’s turn.  They made incredibly tough threes, erased a 13-point Buckeye lead in the blink of an eye, and left me and every member of Buckeye Nation shaking our heads at an epic collapse.  But Aaron Craft, who had missed the front ends of two one-and-ones to expedite Iowa State’s comeback, wouldn’t give up.  He made the big plays down the stretch and then, with the final seconds ticking away, swished a three-pointer to put the game on ice for the Buckeyes.

Kudos to Aaron Craft — the baby-faced assassin — and Deshaun Thomas and LaQuinton Ross, all of whom made big shots in the second half.  And kudos, too, to the Iowa State Cyclones, who were tough, dogged, and determined not to give up.  I’m glad the Buckeyes won, of course, but I have a huge amount of respect for Iowa State and their classy coach.  Great game, Cyclones!  I hope you will turn out to be the toughest team the Buckeyes have to play, because I don’t think Ohio State — or its fans — could survive a tougher game than this one.

Championship Game-Bound

The Ohio State Buckeyes may not be the prettiest college basketball team this year, but they surely are one of the toughest.

The Buckeyes ground out a hard-fought win over the Michigan State Spartans today, 61-58.  The two teams like to battle and play body-up defense, and they showed those qualities today.  Aaron Craft played brilliantly for the Buckeyes, and fortunately survived being hurled to the ground by the neck by the Spartans’ Derrick Nix, on a play that provoked a fusillade of obscenity and brought me out of my chair.  But the Buckeyes hung tough, played through adversity, and when they needed a final bucket to put the game on ice, Deshaun Thomas stepped up and rattled down a jumper.

I recognize that conference tournaments don’t mean a lot, but I’d rather win than lose and go into the NCAA Tournament with some momentum.  Ohio State has played well in the Big Ten Tournament under Thad Matta, and they are going to the championship game again — which seems to be an annual occurrence.  Win or lose tomorrow, and in the Big Dance, this team has come an awful long way since Wisconsin beat the tar out of them a month ago.  Ironically, the Badgers are the team the Buckeyes will face tomorrow, in the final contest of the Big Ten season.

Down Goes Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines have had a tough time of it lately.

Michigan was undefeated for the first two months of the season.  On January 12, they were 16-0 and ready to become the number one-ranked team in the nation.  At that point, everyone raved about the Wolverines’ offensive efficiency, their tough defense, their talented players like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and their heralded freshmen like Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.

On January 13, however, Ohio State held the high-flying Michigan offense to 53 points and beat the Wolverines in Columbus.  Since then, the other coaches in the Big Ten — which some people call the best-scouted league in the country — have tried to exploit the weaknesses first exposed by the Buckeyes.  Michigan ended the regular season 25-7 and lost 5 of its last 10 games.  Today Michigan got knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament by Wisconsin, losing 69-58. The Wolverines lost even though they held Wisconsin to only 17 points in the first half.

Michigan fans are depressed, but college basketball is full of ups and downs.  If I were a Michigan fan — and I’m not, of course — I’d be glad that the Wolverines are done with the Big Ten and can focus on the NCAA Tournament.  Michigan has a lot of talent, and if they play teams that don’t play defense like they do in the Big Ten, Michigan could make a run in the Big Dance.  I wouldn’t count them out.

 

The Reptile At Courtside

Normally I don’t pay much attention to coaches.  I may hate opposing players, or think they are overrated, or wish we had them on our team, but the opposing coach is more of a non-entity.

That’s why I find the revulsion I feel for Tom Crean, the head basketball coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, so interesting.  I’ve come to really despise him, because he seems to have every despicable quality in the book.  He’s a poor sport who won’t give the opposing coach an honest handshake if the Hoosiers lose.  During games he stalks back and forth like a reptile in a pet shop cage and ventures far out onto the court in violation of the rules.  He’s a braggart in victory and a whiner in defeat.  When he loses, he’ll sulk for extended periods before facing the media and answering their questions.  And recently he weirdly berated the assistant coach of an opposing team.  He just seems like a thoroughly unpleasant guy who has some deep-seated issues.

He’s done a fine job at Indiana, I’ll give him credit for that.  He took a fabled basketball school that was on its knees after years of futility and some bad head coaching hires, he recruited some excellent players and coached them well, and he turned things around to the point that the Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season championship this year.  Some of his former players say he has been a tremendous friend and help to them.  But, what Tom Crean possesses in recruiting and basketball savvy he seems to utterly lack in charm and sportsmanship.  If I were an Indiana fan, I’d be celebrating his success but cringing with embarrassment at some of his antics.

I’ve always thought that coaching was an honorable and important profession, because coaches can have an incredible impact on the young people they mentor and teach.  For that reason, I think coaches should be role models and always strive to exhibit the qualities — like sportsmanship, and generosity in victory and graciousness in defeat, and accepting responsibility — that are so important to success in life.  Crean doesn’t do so.  In my mind, that makes him somebody who can figure out how to win basketball games, but not a very good coach.

Another Thadmirable Season

I’m a huge fan of Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta. This season is a great example of why he’s a wonderful coach and excellent representative of my alma mater.

Coach Matta had to replace Jared Sullinger, a dominant center who led the Buckeyes to two Big Ten titles and, last year, a Final Four.  Sullinger left early for the NBA — but Coach Matta is used to that.  He recruits top-notch talent, and he’s lost many players who turned pro after a year or two at Ohio State.  When that happens, he cheerfully accepts the challenge of reshaping his team, and each year he rises to that challenge.  This year’s team has compiled a 22-7 record and is contending for another Big Ten title.

I hope every Ohio State fan remembers what it was like before Coach Matta came to Columbus.  For every good year, Ohio State had many sad seasons of futility and sketchy talent.  That changed immediately when the Matta years began.  Under Coach Matta, the Buckeyes have won 20 games every year and routinely are in the fight for the Big Ten regular season title.  He recruits terrific players and they improve under his coaching.  His teams play with grit and passion.  His tenure has not been tainted by scandals or investigations.  With this record, how can you not appreciate what Thad Matta has done for Ohio State basketball — and be grateful that he has chosen to stay here?

Thad Matta obviously is a wonderful college basketball coach, but he’s also a great person.  He’s a family man.  He’s dealt, uncomplainingly, with painful health issues that would have made most people angry and bitter, yet he has a great sense of humor that he displays whenever he faces a microphone.  He’s active in the community, and thoughtful and decent and well-spoken in his dealings with fans and the media and opposing coaches alike.

As I’ve said before, I believe in the power of saying “thank you.”  Coach Matta, thank you for giving us another great season!  (Now, let’s be sure to beat Illinois on Sunday.)