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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Hoping To Hold Down The Flyers

The Buckeyes learned today that their (hoped for) road to the Final Four begins in Buffalo, where they will play the Dayton Flyers in an in-state matchup that’s filled with intrigue.

The Buckeyes are a sixth seed, as I predicted. Members of Buckeye Nation are outraged, but you can’t lose twice to Penn State and to Indiana and hope for a high seed. I think a sixth seed is entirely fair, and I also get tired of the whining about OSU getting no respect. I hope the players on basketball team, at least, understand that they need to earn respect by playing well and winning a few games.

That’s not going to be easy, because Dayton is a very good team, as well as being a great basketball school with a rich heritage. The Flyers play in the tough Atlantic 10, where they finished 10-6 and lost a very close game in the A-10 Tournament. UD has size and scoring. In fact, their leading scorer is Jordan Sibert, a former Ohio State Buckeye who came in as a heralded recruit and left when he wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. He’ll be looking to prove something in this game — and that’s the first intriguing storyline. The second is Dayton coach Archie Miller, who was on Thad Matta’s staff at Ohio State. He’ll also be hoping to make a statement.

But the biggest bit of intrigue is that OSU is playing UD at all. In Ohio, the Buckeyes are the big dog, and teams like Dayton yearn for a chance to show they can go toe-to-toe with the big boy, and win. If the Flyers can stay close — and with this Buckeyes team, that seems like a virtual certainty — the pressure on OSU will become immense as the game progresses. It should be a very interesting game.

If you want to win the NCAA championship, you need to beat good teams. Ohio State has drawn one of those good teams for its first round matchup. On Thursday, we’ll see whether the Buckeyes can bring the Flyers down to earth.

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.