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.)

 

 

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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.

A Tough Loss, But A Great Season

The Ohio State-Kansas game lived up to its billing — a tough slugging match between two heavyweights.  Unfortunately for Ohio State (and me), Kansas took the Buckeyes’ best shot and came back strong to win.  All credit to the Jayhawks for hustling and scrapping and getting the rebounds and loose balls that allowed them to turn the tide in the second half.

Obviously, I’m sorry that the Buckeyes could not hold their lead and could not make their goal of the national championship game.  Their loss, however, does not take away from what has been a wonderful season for the team and its fans.  This is a group that battled through adversity and tough stretches and came back to play extremely well down the stretch and in the NCAA Tournament.  Much as I would like to have seen the Buckeyes win and get the chance to knock off Kentucky, there is no shame in losing by two points in a hard-fought game to a basketball powerhouse like Kansas.

I’d like to thank William Buford and Jared Sullinger for coming back to play another year, when they could have gone to the NBA and made a lot of money this year instead.  I’ve relished watching Aaron Craft play, and Deshaun Thomas develop into a much more well-rounded player, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. make crucial shots when the team needed them most.  I’ve enjoyed watching Shannon Scott and Amir Williams and Sam Thompson and catching glimpses of their bright futures.  And, I’ve appreciated the hard work of Thad Matta and his coaching staff as they have gotten the team ready to play, game after game.

An evenly matched contest like the one played tonight is a game of inches; the fact that things didn’t bounce the Buckeyes’ way at the end doesn’t detract from a great year.  I know it’s tough for the players and coaches, who were hoping for something even more; it will be some time before the sting eases.  In the meantime, I just want to say thanks for lots of great basketball, Buckeyes!

 

Coaching, And Kansas

Tonight Ohio State plays Kansas in one of the Final Four national semifinal games. The winner gets to move on to the national championship game; the loser will celebrate a great season but also wonder about what might have been.

A lot has been written about the match-ups in the game.  How will Jared Sullinger, who missed the first game between the Buckeyes and Jayhawks in December, fare against shot-blocking center Jeff Withey?  Will cat-quick Jayhawk Tyshawn Taylor be able to play his game notwithstanding the suffocating defensive efforts of Aaron Craft?  Who will guard the Buckeyes’ versatile Deshaun Thomas, and who will try to stop Jayhawk Elijah Johnson?

One match-up that hasn’t been talked about much is the match-up of coaches.  Kansas is led by Bill Self, one of the best coaches in the game.  He has won a national championship at Kansas and has done a great job of getting this team — generally viewed as having less pure talent than prior Jayhawk juggernauts — into the Final Four.  I thought Self outmaneuvered North Carolina’s Roy Williams last weekend as both coaches dealt with the loss of UNC’s point guard.  In the second half Kansas went to a triangle-and-two defense that seemed to knock the Tar Heels off kilter and left them flummoxed for the rest of the game.

Ohio State’s Thad Matta, on the other hand, seems to be under-appreciated by many people.  They acknowledge that he is a great recruiter, and they applaud his courageous way of dealing with the challenges posed by his physical condition, but they downplay his “Xs and Os” skills, criticize him for not using his bench, and say he doesn’t use his timeouts effectively.

I don’t get this criticism, and think this year’s NCAA Tournament demonstrates that Coach Matta can match up with anybody.  He has this year’s team motivated and ready to perform, also also has shown a lot of flexibility in how Ohio State has played its opponents.  Against Gonzaga, which had a strong 7-footer in the middle, he moved Sullinger around and away from the basket for some uncontested jumpers.  Against the fabled Syracuse zone, he changed the positions of Thomas and Sullinger and Ohio State made interior passes that led to some easy baskets; he also recognized that Lenzelle Smith, Jr. was not the focus of Syracuse defensive plans, and in the second half Smith helped to lead the Buckeyes to victory.  In every game, Coach Matta and his staff have put the Buckeyes in the position to win — and that is what you want from a coach.

When the ball tips tonight, we’ll see how Coach Matta has decided to deal with the match-up issues posed by the fine Jayhawk squad.  Before the game begins, however, Ohio State fans should take a moment to thank Coach Matta and his assistants for a job well done — and then hope that they have done a similarly good job in preparing for tonight’s tilt with the Jayhawks.

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.

Hoping To Bounce The Orange

When the NCAA Tournament field of 64 has been reduced to eight, typically only power programs from big conferences remain.  That’s true again this year, where the Elite Eight includes two teams each from the SEC, the Big 12, and the Big East, and one each from the Big Ten and the ACC.

The Ohio State Buckeyes will hope to carry the Big Ten flag forward when they play tonight against the Big East’s best team, the Syracuse Orange.  It will be a battle of two seasoned, highly regarded teams that spent the entire season ranked in the top ten.

Syracuse beat another Big Ten team, Wisconsin, to get to this point.  The Badgers almost pulled that game out because they canned 14 three-pointers shooting over the fabled Syracuse zone that Coach Jim Boeheim has perfected.  That’s not likely to happen tonight, because Ohio State simply doesn’t have the three-point shooters to take that approach unless William Buford gets hot.

The Buckeyes will be looking to break down the zone in other ways, by trying to get the ball to Deshaun Thomas at the elbow of the lane and have him shoot mid-range jumpers before Syracuse players can rotate over or dish to Jared Sullinger and others if holes in the zone open up.  Thomas has been a stud in the Tournament, and the Buckeyes hope his strong showing will continue.

The other key on offense will be rebounding.  The Buckeyes have been a good rebounding team, and teams that play zone — Syracuse included — often get outrebounded because they can’t get a body on every offensive player when the ball comes off the glass.  Syracuse’s rebounding challenges were compounded when they lost their big man, Fab Melo, for the tournament.  Ohio State will need to crash the boards, and that means Sullinger, Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. will need to hustle and scrap for put-back buckets on the offensive end.

Syracuse has a lot of long and talented players who can run, shoot, and finish near the rim. They like to play up-tempo and score fast-break points off turnovers.  They are led in scoring by forward Kris Joseph and guard Dion Waiters, but the match-up I’ll have my eye on will be Ohio State’s Aaron Craft against Syracus guard Scoop Jardine.  Jardine is terrific, and Syracuse counts on him to get the ball to the players who can finish.  Craft will be trying to disrupt that and will be playing his tremendous pressure on the ball style to do so.  If Craft can get Jardine out of his rhythm and out of his game without getting himself into foul trouble, the Buckeyes will have a chance to move forward.

In the Elite Eight you expect to see tough games between great teams.  We’ll see one tonight.

 

Eightward Bound

It was a battle, and the outcome was long in doubt, but Ohio State pulled out a win over Cincinnati tonight. Through their 81-66 victory, the Buckeyes advance to the Elite Eight and avoided getting knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen for the third year in a row.

This was a tough, tough win — just what you would expect in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.  The Buckeyes rode the stellar play of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger to a 12-point halftime lead.  Thomas, in particular, was spectacular, making shots from all over the floor as the Bearcats tried desperately to find someone who could match up with him.

The second half was another story, however.  The Buckeyes saw their lead vanish as Cincinnati hustled, forced turnovers, and shot lights out.  Credit to the Bearcats for playing a gutty game and not giving up.

The Buckeyes fell behind, but dug down deep, shut down the Bearcats, and pulled away.  Sullinger and Thomas were great, but Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. provided the energy and the gritty defense that frustrated the Bearcats and allowed the Buckeyes to rebuild their lead and cruise to victory. Craft seemed to be just about everywhere, knocking balls loose, hitting the floor, and driving the Bearcat big men and guards alike to distraction with his quick hands.

Smith, on the other hand, made some great passes, got some crucial buckets, and helped to shut down the Bearcats when the game was in the balance.  This game showed why Coach Thad Matta likes to have Lenzelle in the lineup.  When he is playing his game, he contributes in so many different ways.

Both Smith and Craft contributed on offense in the second half; Smith had 15 points, and Craft ended with 11, most of which came on free throws.  William Buford, on the other hand, probably is glad he’ll never see another Sweet Sixteen game — he seemed out of sorts all game and could not get the ball to go down.  We’ll hope he’s gotten the game out of his system, because we’ll need him to score in the next game.

So, the Buckeyes advance to play Syracuse.  They’ll need to play well and shoot better from the free throw line, but we’ll worry about that game later.  For now, the Buckeyes have moved on and knocked Cincinnati out of the tournament in the process.

Somewhere, Jerry Lucas is smiling.