Handling The Sunday Curse (II)

The Sunday curse has finally been exorcised!

IMG_3102Today, the Buckeyes played a tough game in the second half.  After trailing by six at halftime, the Buckeyes reacted to a well-timed timeout by coach Thad Matta, ratcheted down on defense, and played a great second stanza.  Riding a career performance from Aaron Craft — who simply would not be denied on his drives to the hoop — the Buckeyes topped no. 4 Michigan State, 68-60.  Evan Ravenel, Sam Thompson, Deshaun Thomas, and Amir Williams played very well.  Buckeyes fans can hope that this team is starting to find its heart.

The win gives the Buckeyes 20 wins for the year, and also means that they will have a winning record in the very tough Big Ten.  There’s still a long way to go, but beating Michigan State is a huge win for Ohio State.  Great win, Buckeyes!  Now, keep it up!

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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.

The Buckeyes Lose A Close One At Cameron

Last night the Ohio State Buckeyes fell to the Duke Blue Devils, 73-68, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  It was a tightly contested, entertaining match-up between two pretty good basketball teams.

The Buckeyes played excellent on-the-ball defense and rebounded the ball well to dominate the first half — even though they played most of the half with Deshaun Thomas, their top scorer, riding the bench with two fouls.  The Buckeyes were sharp and attacking and had Duke on its heels.  In the second half, however, Duke played much more aggressively at both ends of the court, and it paid off.  Duke hit big shots, Ohio State didn’t, and when Duke pulled ahead it made the free throws that salted the game away.

Duke’s Mason Plumlee is as good as advertised.  As expected, he dominated inside, scoring 21 points and corralling 17 rebounds.  The Blue Devils also got great contributions from Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly, and Quinn Cook, all of whom responded to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s halftime instructions and hit huge shots to help Plumlee put the Blue Devils on top.  As usual, Duke was helped by its awesome home court advantage, with great blue-painted fans screaming every time an Ohio State player touched the ball.

The Buckeyes’ main problem was shooting.  Thomas never seemed to get into a rhythm after his early foul trouble, and Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Shannon Scott all struggled with their shots.  Still, the game had lots of positives for the young Ohio State team.  The Buckeyes stood toe-to-toe with a basketball power on its legendary home court, kept its poise even when shots weren’t dropping, and played down to the wire in a game many pundits expected would be a Duke blowout.  Playing in a tough venue like Cameron Indoor Stadium will serve the Buckeyes well when the Big Ten season begins.  I also thought that Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel played pretty well inside — if you can say that when the opposing center scores 21 points — and their experience with Plumlee should help when they match up against Indiana’s stud center, Cody Zeller.  Sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson weren’t intimidated and showed they can make big contributions, and I suspect that Craft will use his off night as an incentive to play even harder the rest of the year.

It would have been nice to beat Duke, end its streak of home floor wins against non-conference opponents, and win the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes have nothing to be ashamed of.  Coach Matta and his staff will use the lessons from this game to teach and tinker and get the team ready for the Big Ten season.

Basketball In The Belly Of The Beast

Tomorrow night the Ohio State Buckeyes play basketball in the Belly of the Beast.  They will take on the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the legendary facility that is the toughest college basketball venue in the land.

Cameron is tough because the crowd is loud and proud, but mostly it’s tough because Duke always has great teams under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.  This year is no exception.  The Blue Devils are ranked second and they’ve already beaten two of the most highly regarded teams in the nation, Kentucky and Louisville.  After six games, the Blue Devils have five players averaging in double figures.  They are led by 6-10 center Mason Plumlee, who is netting almost 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks per game, and senior guard Seth Curry.  The Blue Devils have a lot of talent and play the tough, disciplined game you expect from a Coach K team.

The Blue Devils also have some extra motivation.  Last year they got pulverized by Ohio State at Value City Arena, 85-63, in a game where the Buckeyes could do no wrong.  That game, like this one, is part of the annual Big Ten-ACC challenge.  After winning the first ten Challenges, the ACC has lost three in a row to the Big Ten and got waxed in 2011.  Both conferences have lots of good teams this year, so fans can expect interesting match-ups between schools in two of the country’s top basketball conferences.

Duke clearly has the edge in tomorrow night’s contest, but the game should be an intriguing one.  Plumlee gives Duke a strong inside game that the Buckeyes lack; OSU big men Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams will have to play exceptionally well to keep the Buckeyes competitive.  OSU defensive whiz Aaron Craft will take on one of the Duke guards, but can the Buckeyes guard the rest of the Blue Devil squad?  At the other end of the court, Duke will have to figure out how to defend the Buckeyes’ top scorer, Deshaun Thomas, who can take the ball inside or pop from outside. Ohio State fans also are looking for Lenzelle Smith, Jr., one of the heroes of the Buckeyes’ run to the Final Four last year, to assert himself at the offensive end.

The Buckeyes are a young team that is still searching for its identity and its player rotation.  If Ohio State can give the Blue Devils a good game in front of thousands of face-painted Duke students who are screaming their brains out, that will tell us a lot about the toughness of Thad Matta’s Buckeye squad, and its prospects in the Big Ten and beyond.

Pointing Toward Some Buckeye Basketball

It’s football season, sure . . . but college basketball is just around the corner.  The Buckeye roundballers open the season on November 9 against Marquette on the U.S.S. Yorktown, of all places, and will be trying to follow up on an excellent season that saw the team reach the Final Four before falling to Kansas in a heart-breaker.  The Buckeyes will need to replace their leader and mainstay in the middle, Jared Sullinger, and long-time starter William Buford, but the talent on the roster seems to give them shot at doing so.

The team begins with three stalwart players who really emerged last year:  scoring and rebounding machine Deshaun Thomas, point guard and defensive stopper Aaron Craft, and do-everything guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  All three played significant minutes and made big contributions to last year’s success.  To replace Sullinger in the middle, the Buckeyes will look to 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams, a shot blocker who showed promise is limited action last year, and senior Evan Ravenel, who backed up Sullinger.  The other spot might be occupied by point guard Shannon Scott, who will need to improve his shooting this year, jump-out-of-the-gym alley-ooper Sam Thompson, or silky smooth shooter LaQuinton Ross.  Add in freshman Amedeo Della Valle, from Alba, Italy, and you give coach Thad Matta lots of pieces to work with.

At Ohio State, Matta has been a master at matching his scheme to his players.  Will he move Craft to shooting guard and start Scott at the point?  With the depth and quickness the Buckeyes have, will he play an up tempo, pressing game that relies on Williams’ shot-blocking prowess to erase any breakaway efforts by opponents?  To add to the intrigue, the Buckeyes play an interesting preseason schedule that features not only Marquette but also games at Duke and a rematch with Kansas — followed by the always tough Big Ten schedule.

It’s going to be another interesting season for OSU basketball fans.

Deshaun’s Decision

As expected, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has declared for the NBA draft.  I’m not surprised by his decision.  He took a physical beating in every game this season and probably decided if he was going to take that kind of abuse he may as well get paid for it.  I wish him well and thank him for his fine play for the Buckeyes.

Obviously, I’m more excited about Deshaun Thomas’ decision to return to Ohio State for his junior year.  This past season he went from a one-dimensional, shot-launching part-time player to a crucial part of the team that made it all the way to the Final Four.  He brought so much to the table — a scorer’s mentality and creative shot-making, an inside-outside offensive game, tremendous rebounding abilities, and significantly improved defense and interior passing — and was just a lot of fun to watch.  If his improvement from his sophomore to junior year is comparable his development this year, Thomas could compete for leading scorer and rebounder honors in the Big Ten next year.

Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. give Ohio State a solid core of tested players for coach Thad Matta to build around.  He’ll work to fit Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and others into the mix, and the result likely will be a team that looks different from this year’s post-oriented squad.  With the athletes on the team, might the Buckeyes go up-tempo on offense and press on defense, and look for Williams to use his shot-blocking skills to erase mistakes if the press is broken?  The potential options are intriguing.

I imagine that another year working in the weight room and sharpening all facets of his game would help Thomas’ NBA prospects — but I don’t know enough about the NBA to say for sure.  What I do know is that Thomas’ election to come back is very welcome news for Ohio State basketball fans.

The Final Four. Period.

The Buckeyes are going to the Final Four!  Even as I type those words, I find them hard to believe — and richly satisfying, all at the same time.

What a fine, if foul-plagued, game this was!  Ohio State took the game to Syracuse from the first tip.  They played a smart game against the Syracuse zone, and once they figured out how the officials were going to call the game, they tailored their approach accordingly.  The Buckeyes attacked, they rebounded, and they hounded Syracuse into a series of turnovers when the game was on the line.

Virtually every Buckeye made a significant contribution in this game.  Jared Sullinger overcame first half foul trouble and dominated the game in the second half every time he touched the ball.  Aaron Craft was a hustling hurricane, Deshaun Thomas made some great passes and clutch shots, and the Buckeye bench — Sam Thompson, Evan Ravenel, Shannon Scott, and particularly Amir Williams — made the win possible.  But I particularly want to commend William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. — Buford, because he kept fighting and just wouldn’t quit, and Smith, who was fearless in putting the ball up and taking the ball to the rack.

It’s so rare for a team to make it to the Final Four.  So much depends on match-ups, and who is hot and who is not, and how the ball bounces.  It’s time to enjoy this great accomplishment, and revel in the cool of the evening.