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.

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Into The Big Blue

Tonight Ohio State and Kentucky face off in Newark, New Jersey for the right to move along into the Elite Eight.  Ohio State will hope to avoid the kind of upset that has knocked out Duke and Pitt, and Kentucky will try to beat Ohio State for the first time in an NCAA tournament.

Brandon Knight

Late starting time aside — the game is projected to tip at 9:45, which probably means after 10 p.m. — this should be a terrific contest.  Kentucky is one of the most storied teams in college basketball, with a jaw-dropping tradition that features 51 NCAA tournaments, 13 Final Fours, and seven national championships.  The Buckeyes are currently the consensus number one and are looking to build on the tradition that has developed since Coach Thad Matta arrived.  Both teams are hot and have come to the NCAA tournament after winning their conference tournament.  Both teams feature an exciting mix of freshmen — in the Wildcats’ case, guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones, the two leading scorers — and upperclassmen.  In Matta and Kentucky’s John Calipari, both teams have coaches who have taken different teams deep into the NCAA tournament.

Every game in the NCAA tournament seems to turn into a game of matchups, and this game should be no different.  Kentucky fans believe Knight will be the best guard Ohio State has faced this season; Buckeye fans hope that Aaron Craft can display some of his defensive prowess and hound Knight into turnovers and bad shots.  Ohio State fans think Jared Sullinger should be able to dominate inside; Wildcats supporters are confident that 6-10 senior Josh Harrelson (known as “Jorts” for some unknown reason) will be able to hold Sullinger in check.  Kentucky wonders who will guard the 6-8 Jones, who can both drive and launch from the outside, and Ohio State asks who will be matched against lanky William Buford.  Other questions abound.  Can David Lighty penetrate and dish?  Will Kentucky try to play an up-tempo game or slow it down?  Will Jon Diebler be hot from behind the arc?  Will early foul trouble set one team back?

Fans of both teams seem to be complaining that this great tilt is happening this early in the tournament.  I think it is one of the things that makes the NCAA tournament such a terrific event.  Whichever team advances after tonight’s game will feel like it has really accomplished something.  I’m hoping that team will be Ohio State.

 

Next Up, The Wildcats

The Ohio State Buckeyes rolled on to the Sweet 16 today.  Next weekend, they will play one of the most storied teams in college basketball — the Kentucky Wildcats — for the chance to move on to the Elite Eight.

Tonight the Buckeyes pulverized a game, but totally outmatched, George Mason team.  After falling behind 11-2, the Buckeyes came roaring back behind the outside shooting of David Lighty, the inside toughness and rebounding of Jared Sullinger, the dunking prowess of Dallas Lauderdale, and the pinpoint passing and defensive intensity of point guard Aaron Craft.  With Jon Diebler making a signature buzzer-beating three-pointer, the Buckeyes led at the half 52-26.  The lead never dropped below 20 points thereafter as William Buford heated up, and the Buckeyes ended up winning 98-66.  Every player on the team saw significant action, and senior guard Eddie Days had a chance to play and score.

Kentucky will be a more severe test than George Mason.  The Wildcats were one of the best teams in the SEC.  They are led by talented and athletic freshmen, including excellent guard Brandon Knight, who scored 30 points in leading Kentucky to victory over West Virginia.  We’ll worry about the Wildcats later, however.  For now, those of us in Buckeye Nation will relish the fact that our team is still alive to play again next week.  We’ll also join Lighty, Diebler, and Lauderdale in celebrating both a big win and the fact that they received their college diplomas before the game today.

Kicking Some Badger Butt

It was very satisfying, indeed, to watch Ohio State crush Wisconsin today, 93-65.  The blow-out win was a fitting send-off to David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale, who will go down as one of the best — and certainly most beloved — senior classes in Ohio State hoops history.  It also was nice to see the Buckeyes “deal with it,” to use Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s deathless phrase.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta has molded together a really wonderful team.  It is staggering that the Buckeyes scored 93 points on the Badgers, who are one of the best defensive teams in the country.  Before today, Wisconsin had allowed only one team to score even 70 points.  But today, the Buckeyes beat the Badgers inside and beat the Badgers outside.  Jon Diebler led Ohio State in raining threes, as the Buckeyes shot a stunning 14 out of 15 from behind the arc.  Jared Sullinger, Dallas Lauderdale, and David Lighty also put up a lot of points in the paint, and the Buckeyes out-rebounded the Badgers as well.  Finally, Aaron Craft played a virtually flawless offensive floor game, dishing out 6 assists while having zero turnovers.  If Ohio State executes like that on the offensive end in the rest of its games this season, it will be a very hard team for anyone to beat.

On the defensive end, the Buckeyes shut down Jordan Taylor, who had torched the Buckeyes in Madison, and also took the Badgers’ excellent forward, Jon Leuer, out of his game.  The Buckeyes can play a suffocating man-to-man, as they did today, and their offensive efficiency also puts pressure on the opposing team’s offense.  When Ohio State is scoring on virtually every trip down the court, and often with a three, the temptation for the other team to come down and try to score quickly is difficult to resist — and often quick shots are bad shots.

The Buckeyes now need to put this very satisfying win behind them.  They move on to the Big Ten Tournament as the number one seed.  That tournament doesn’t mean much, except as a vehicle to cement an overall no. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  The Buckeyes need to avoid injury, stay sharp, and let some of their back-ups play — and then they need to get ready for The Big Dance.

Looking To “Deal With It”

The Ohio State Buckeyes were undefeated until they traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to play the Badgers.  The Buckeyes built a 15-point lead early in the second half, but then Jordan Taylor caught fire.  He was unconscious for the rest of the game and, with some help from his teammates, he led Wisconsin to victory.

Losing is no big deal in college basketball.  There hasn’t been a undefeated team in decades, and there is no shame in losing at Wisconsin — where the Badgers lose only once in a blue moon.  But what made the loss memorable was that Jared Sullinger mentioned that he was spit upon as Wisconsin fans stormed the court and that, when Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was asked about the incident a few days later, his message was that Wisconsin had won the game and the Buckeyes just needed to “deal with it.”  Ryan’s flippant comment has been seized upon by Buckeyes’ fans as a bit of a battle cry.

Ohio State hopes to “deal with it” tomorrow, when they play the Badgers at Value City Arena in the last regular-season game of the year.  It should be a great atmosphere.  Red “Deal With It” towels will be handed out to all of the students in the Nut House.  And there will be more on the line than just working to get some payback against Wisconsin.  It will be Senior Day, with Ohio State stalwarts David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale playing their final home games.  And if the Buckeyes win, they will win the Big Ten regular season title outright.

The Badgers are on a winning streak against Ohio State.  In addition to their win over the no. 1 Buckeyes early this basketball season, they also beat the no. 1 Buckeyes in football.  Now the basketball Buckeyes are no. 1, again.  Let’s hope they turn the tables on the Badgers tomorrow.

Enjoying The Show

Tuesday night some friends invited Kish and I to watch the Buckeyes play Illinois at the Schott.  We had a great time watching the Buckeyes beat up on a traditional Big Ten power.

Jared Sullinger and William Buford

I don’t know what will happen for the rest of the season or in the NCAA Tournament.  I do know, however, that this is one of the most entertaining basketball teams I’ve ever watched.  They play great defense.  They rebound well.  They can get out and run with anyone, and in David Lighty they have one of the best finishers in the college game.  They can play a slow-down game and fire away from the outside, with Jon Diebler and William Buford.  They can work the ball inside to Jared Sullinger, one of the best post position players in America.  And, with Aaron Craft, they can break a press, break down a defense on a drive down the lane, and unmercifully harass the opposing point guard with in-your-shirt defense.

Tuesday’s game was a great example of the enormous entertainment value of this team.  In the first half, Illinois shot the ball about as well as a college team can reasonably expect — at one point, the Illini were 8 of 9 from three-point land — and still the Buckeyes led by 15 at the half.  They did so because they forced turnovers and were ridiculously efficient at the offensive end, with William Buford leading the way.  In the second half, after Illinois closed the gap to 6 points, David Lighty grabbed the game by the throat and simply wrestled it into submission.  He hit threes, he made steals that led to breakaway dunks, and he took the ball to the rack, and the Buckeyes pulled away.

I really enjoy watching these guys play.  Thad Matta has produced another great team.

The Badgers And The Buckeyes

Wisconsin has a rare opportunity tomorrow.  A few months ago they ruined Ohio State’s perfect season in football with a convincing win at Camp Randall Stadium.  Tomorrow they have the chance to do the same thing in basketball.  The very idea sends a collective shudder through Buckeye Nation.

The odds favor the Badgers.  They have a well-coached, talented team — and Wisconsin is ridiculously hard to beat at the Kohl Center.  Bo Ryan’s record there is absurdly good.  Thad Matta, who has a fine Big Ten road record since he began coaching the Buckeyes, has never beaten Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.  And if, like me, you are a Buckeye fan who believes in karma, your heart must have sank when you saw Wisconsin recently pull out a gritty road win against Iowa in a game where Wisconsin simply could not knock down a shot.  That probably means that the Badgers will be lights out tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s game should be a real treat for college basketball fans.  Both teams play solid basketball and sound defense.  Both teams have experience and players who are in contention for all-conference honors.  In Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin has two players who would be welcome on any team in the country, and they are backed by a complement of players who can shoot the 3, crash the boards, and run Wisconsin’s deliberate offense to perfection.  Both teams have great coaches who are perennial winners.  If you are Ohio State, you are hoping that Jared Sullinger plays at the same high level he has displayed all season and that David Lighty and Jon Diebler, as seniors, help the Buckeyes navigate through the rough patches that undoubtedly will occur before the screaming Kohl Center crowd.

This will be a huge test for this year’s Ohio State basketball team.  Win or lose, it is the kind of tough game that will be good experience for the Buckeyes when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.