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.

Shockers, Wildcats, And Explorers

Tomorrow night Ohio State will continue the NCAA Tournament by playing in the West regionals in Los Angeles.  Four teams — the Wildcats, the Shockers, the Explorers, and the Buckeyes — will vie for one coveted spot in the Final Four.  So, the regional features ferocious felines, hard-working wheat harvesters, intrepid adventurers, . . . and poisonous nuts.  I’m rooting for the nuts, of course.

We’re to the point in the season where every team still playing is very good, and very scary.  The Buckeyes’ first opponent, Arizona, certainly fits that bill.  For years, Arizona has been one of the premier programs in college basketball.  This year the Wildcats, seeded sixth in the West, are 27-7 and crushed their first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament.  They are led by three players averaging more than 10 points a game —  guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson and forward Solomon Hill — and have lots of size on the inside.  Equally important during high-drama tournament games, Arizona has a number of seniors on its roster who can be expected to provide steady leadership during the high-stress moments.  Arizona’s talented and deep roster appears to present a number of match-up problems for Ohio State.  To top things off, the Wildcats’ coach, Sean Miller, is a Thad Matta protege who knows Ohio State’s coach well, and Arizona will have a home court advantage of sorts by playing in neighboring California.  All told, I think Arizona will pose an enormous challenge for the Buckeyes.

The other game pits two teams that have nothing to lose, because no one expected them to get this far.  LaSalle, which had a “play-in” game, has already won three games in the Tournament, including squeakers over Kansas State and Ole Miss.  Wichita State, on the other hand, pulverized Pitt and then upset top-ranked Gonzaga.  Expect both teams to be playing loose and with reckless abandon; their game should be fun to watch.

The Buckeyes’ game, on the other hand, won’t be fun to watch for those of us who are true fans.  We’ll be seriously into it, with every Buckeye bucket a cause for celebration and every Arizona score like a hard punch to the gut.  I’ll watch with angst and adrenalin because I’ve truly enjoyed this season of OSU basketball, and I don’t want it to end just yet.  Let’s go, Bucks!

The Buzzer-Beater

As we sit in the Columbus area on a Sunday night and wait for the next snow storm to hit, there’s no reason we shouldn’t watch Aaron Craft’s last-second dagger against Iowa State again . . . and again.

The Buckeyes are off to the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth time in four years.  Great job, Thad Matta, and great job, Buckeyes.  Los Angeles, here we come!

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.

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.)

 

 

Huge Win In The Old Conference Now!

I stayed up for it, and I’m glad.  Let the snow fall, and the winter storm roll in.  I’ll take it, because the Ohio State Buckeyes have beaten the Indiana Hoosiers in one of the most improbable victories we’ve seen in a while.

Remember, this is the Indiana team that manhandled the Buckeyes in Columbus.  But tonight, the Ohio State backcourt of Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft controlled the game.  Every time you looked up, Craft was driving to the hoop for a clutch bucket, or Scott was making an unbelievable steal to keep the Buckeyes in control.  And the Hoosiers lost.

It’s unimaginable, really, that Ohio State would beat Indiana in Bloomington, on Senior Night, with the Big Ten championship on the line — but they did.  They neutralized Victor Oladipo, kept Cody Zeller from domination, and controlled the entire second half.

It was an awesome performance by the Buckeyes, and an awesome coaching job by Thad Matta and his staff.  If I weren’t a working man, I’d watch it again right now.  But I am . . . which means I’m watching it again, tomorrow night.  Awesome performance, Buckeyes!

(I’ll also repeat what I’ve said earlier.  This year’s Big Ten is one of the greatest, most competitive college conferences ever.  It’s just been terrific basketball.)

The Dreaded 9 O’Clock Start

I’m a working man.  On weekdays, I get up before 5 a.m.  I’m out the door and off to work by  7 a.m., and I typically don’t get home until after 6:30 p.m.

Why do college basketball game planners hate people like me?  Why do they put good games, like Ohio State’s match-up with Indiana tonight, on the schedule for 9 p.m. on a weeknight?  It’s Tuesday night, for crying out loud!

So, here’s what will happen.  I’ll watch the game.  I’ll stay up later than I normally do.  I’ll be charged up about the game for a prolonged period of time.  And when the game ends around 11 p.m. or so, I’ll be unable to get to sleep right away.  Either I’ll be upset at how the Buckeyes played and focused on their loss when I try to sleep, or I’ll be excited that Ohio State somehow pulled off an improbable road victory — on Indiana’s senior night, no less, when the Hoosiers are trying to win an outright Big Ten championship — that the adrenalin won’t let me rest.  Either way, I’m not going to get a good night’s sleep.  And don’t even raise the possibility of overtime!

C’mon, ESPN, and Big Ten.  Give a working man a break!

A Gameless Weekend

The Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t playing this weekend.  After a grueling last few weeks in the Big Ten meat grinder, and some hard work in pulling out a win over Northwestern at Evanston, the Buckeyes are getting a well-deserved rest.

IMG_3108We fans, however, are pining for a weekend game.  I enjoy the adrenalin rush the games provide, and I rationalize that the spikes in my blood pressure caused by bad calls from referees during an OSU game probably are good for my system.  Every once in a while, you want to make sure that your body can withstand various stresses.  Isn’t that what those doctor-supervised stress tests are all about?  Getting seriously into a Buckeyes game is just the self-administered version.

Still, in a way it’s also nice to have the weekend off.  We get to see other teams play without having an enormous emotional investment in the outcome.  Today I’ll watch the Michigan-Michigan State game.  Whatever the result, it will help the Buckeyes in their quest for a higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament.  If Michigan loses, they drop below Ohio State in the loss column; if Michigan wins, Michigan State joins Ohio State and Michigan with five losses in the conference.

So today I’ll watch the games with a relaxed attitude.  I’ll be husbanding my emotional and stress-related resources for Tuesday night, when Ohio State travels to Bloomington for a make-or-break game against the top-ranked Hoosiers.

Handling The Sunday Curse

This afternoon the basketball Buckeyes will play the Michigan State Spartans at the Schott.  I’ll watch it, but I’m kind of dreading it.

IMG_3110Lately, Sundays have not been kind to the Buckeyes.  Two Sundays ago, the number one-ranked Indiana Hoosiers came to the Schott and beat the Buckeyes soundly, 81-68.  Then, last Sunday, Ohio State got embarrassed in Madison by the Wisconsin Badgers, 71-49.  The Indiana game was bad enough, because losing on your home floor, even to the top-ranked team in the country, is always painful, but the loss to Wisconsin was especially disturbing.  In that game, the characteristic traits of a Thad Matta team — tough defense, hustle, grit, and a don’t quit attitude in the face of adversity — were wholly absent.  The Buckeyes didn’t show up and didn’t look like the same team we’d seen earlier in the season.

Fortunately, the college basketball season is long, and there are opportunities for redemption.  The Buckeyes bounced back with a win over Minnesota earlier this week, and now they face another huge challenge in Michigan State.  The Spartans are vying with Indiana for the Big Ten lead, and you know they will be crashing the boards like Tom Izzo-coached teams always do.  Led by excellent point guard Keith Appling, the Spartans have a deep lineup of hard-nosed and talented players.  Sam Thompson, above, and his teammates will need to play well to beat them, and they could use some help from the Buckeye Nut House fans, too.

But . . . it’s a Sunday game.  Let’s hope that, this Sunday, the Buckeyes don’t play like they think Sunday should be a day of rest.

The Heckler

Last night, while watching the Buckeyes battle Northwestern on the hard court, I watched a hairless referee botch another call.  I could restrain myself no longer.  I stood up from my seat and yelled:  “Hey Baldy!  Get your head out of your ass!”

Kish was shocked, and perhaps neighboring fans were, too.  She yanked me down and pleaded that I never do that again.  In particular, she said, I should never comment on someone’s physical appearance.

I’m sorry that I called Old Chrome Dome “Baldy,” but I had to get his attention, because he clearly blew the call.  His scalp condition was such that I doubt my effort was the first time he had been called “Baldy.”  In fact, I’d imagine he responds to “Baldy” routinely, perhaps even when that name is shouted by his mother and members of his family.  So why not use a word that he might hear and recognize?

As far as the rest of the comment goes, I encourage heckling at sporting events.  If you’re going to don that striped shirt and whistle and judge other people, you’ve got to expected to be judged yourself.  If Mr. Clean is going to blow a call to the detriment of the Buckeyes, he needs to understand he’ll be called on it.

I think heckling can get out of hand when it becomes profane (sorry, I don’t think “ass” really qualifies) and violent, but a little needling of the ref is part of what should be a home court advantage.  I’d rather be an occasional heckler than a fan who never stands up, cheers, or chants.

Last-Second Schott

IMG_3104It was a close game at the Schott tonight — closer than most Buckeyes fans would like, but playing Northwestern, with its high-motion, clock-burning, back-cutting offense, is always tough.  Late in the second half the Buckeyes pulled ahead and then pulled away, courtesy of gutty play by Deshaun Thomas and some thunderous Sam Thompson dunks.  Amir Williams and Lenzelle Smith Jr., pictured above, both played well, as did Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft.

We sat in great seats courtesy of our friends (thanks, Mike and Jo Ann!) and enjoyed a close, hard-fought contest.  The Big Ten is just incredibly tough this year.  Teams have to scrap and claw in every game, so every win should be savored.  Get the W, and now focus on Wisconsin, up next on Sunday afternoon at the always-tough Kohl Center in Madison.

Rooting For The Unaccustomed Underdog

This afternoon the Ohio State men’s basketball team welcomes the Michigan Wolverines to the Schott.  It will be the first conference game in years where the rest of the Big Ten is rooting for the Buckeyes to win.

During most of Thad Matta’s highly successful tenure as the Ohio State coach, the Buckeyes have been at the top of the Big Ten.  They’ve dominated the Wolverines and knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament three years in a row.  This year, though, the tables are turned.  Michigan is unbeaten and, with Duke’s loss yesterday, will be ranked number 1 in the land if they can beat the Buckeyes today.  Ohio State, on the other hand, has seen its offensive struggles continue and isn’t the overwhelming force of the past few years.  The Buckeyes got crushed on the road at Illinois and will have to play their best game of the year to beat the Wolverines.

Michigan is talented and deep.  They’ve got the best point guard in the conference in Trey Burke, who dishes out assists and leads the Wolverines in scoring.  Tim Hardaway, Jr. and freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III also average double-digit point production.  The Wolverines have shot better than 50 percent from the field and are averaging more than 80 points a game.  Ohio State fans would love to see the Buckeyes put up those kinds of statistics.

The Big Ten is supposed to be competitive this year.  For that to happen, teams like Ohio State must beat the Michigans, Indianas, and Minnesotas at home and win on the road against the weaker teams.  So far in conference play, Michigan has beaten Northwestern, Iowa, and Nebraska, three of the struggling teams.  Buckeye Nation hopes that Ohio State introduces Michigan to a real, full-throated, hostile Big Ten environment today at the Schott.  I’m expecting the Buckeye Nut House — the student section located behind the visitors bench — to scream their brains out and get treated for laryngitis tomorrow.  With a little help from the crowd, Ohio State could pull off an upset.

Edited to add:  Ohio State got out to a big lead in the first half, then held on for dear life to hand the Wolverines their first loss.  The crowd seemed to be really into the game, and their enthusiasm clearly helped the Buckeyes.

Sam . . . BAM!

If you like high-flying dunks — and what red-blooded American doesn’t? — Sam Thompson of Ohio State is your man.  This guy is just an amazing athlete, who is capable of jumping and soaring and doing things with his body that normal folks wouldn’t even dream of doing.

Thompson had a jaw-dropping dunk after catching a slightly errant alley-oop pass in Ohio State’s recent win over Nebraska, and it caused the Big Ten Network to prepare a compilation of his dunks that is a joy to watch.  How can you not revel in an extraordinarily talented athlete showing what amazing things great athletes can do?

Some people have real athletic ability; most of us don’t.  Those of us who have trouble achieving a vertical leap of six inches can only watch studs like Sam Thompson, and wonder what it must be like to soar and slip the surly bonds of Earth.

Will The Sophomores Step Up?

Tonight the Ohio State University men’s basketball team plays its first Big Ten contest of the season.  The Buckeyes take on Nebraska at the Schott.

It will be the start of what promises to be a very challenging Big Ten season.  Michigan is undefeated and ranked second in the land, preseason favorite Indiana has lost only once and is ranked fifth, and Minnesota and Illinois each have lost only once and are ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively — and that list doesn’t even include perennial contenders Michigan State and Wisconsin.  The consensus view of analysts is that the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country.

What about the Buckeyes?  They are 10-2, but they’ve lost the only two games they’ve played against powerhouse teams, falling to Duke away and Kansas at home.  In both cases, a big problem was shooting the ball.  Ohio State plays solid defense but struggles to knock down shots in their half court offense.  Deshaun Thomas can be counted on to put points on the board, but the team lacks a consistent number two scorer.  Point guard Aaron Craft is a defensive whiz, but he struggles with his outside shot and the lack of Jared Sullinger in the middle has affected his opportunities to drive to the basket.  Guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. is a hustler but his offensive production is streaky.  Center Evan Ravenel — the only senior on the team — has decent offensive skills but is undersized.

That leaves Buckeye fans looking to members of Ohio State’s heralded sophomore class:  guard Shannon Scott, forwards LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson, and center Amir Williams.  All have shown improvement over their performance last year.  Scott seems to be playing with much more confidence, particularly on the offensive end, Thompson has developed a jump shot to go with his awe-inspiring dunks, and Ross has showed signs of having the all-around offensive game that makes Buckeye Nation wonder whether he can become another Deshaun Thomas.  Williams’ progress has been slower.  He doesn’t have a dependable “big man” offensive move, yet, but he is becoming a disruptive force on the defensive end with his shot-blocking abilities.

If Ohio State is going to contend for the Big Ten championship this year — and that’s a big if, with the depth of talent in the conference this year — it will be because these members of the sophomore class step up, contribute on the offensive end, and play tough on the road.  Their first test is tonight.