The Road Gets Tougher For The Buckeyes

Ohio State pulverized Penn State tonight, 78-54.  The Nittany Lions were just overmatched, as Ohio State improved to 6-2 in the Big Ten and 18-3 overall.

It was a good victory for the Buckeyes, who have won their last three games resoundingly after a tough loss to Illinois.  Tonight, the Ohio State offense was clicking, and for the third game in a row the Buckeyes’ defense held an opponent to 20 points or less in the first half.  The Buckeyes pulled away early, led by 20 at halftime, and Penn State never made it close during the second half.  Jared Sullinger scored 20 points and was unstoppable inside, William Buford and Aaron Craft also hit double figures, Deshuan Thomas chipped in 9 and had some fine assists and rebounds, and the Ohio State bench got plenty of playing time as a total of 10 players scored.

The Buckeyes currently are tied for the Big Ten lead, but their challenges gets tougher starting now.  Six of their last 10 Big Ten games are against three ranked teams — no. 11 Michigan State, no. 22 Michigan, and no. 25 Wisconsin.  Those just happen to be the three teams vying with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead.  In that stretch Ohio State also plays Illinois, which knocked off the Buckeyes two weeks ago, as well as always tough Purdue.  This is the stretch of games that will determine whether the Buckeyes are contenders or pretenders.

The first big game is Sunday, when the Michigan Wolverines come to the Schott.  Playing the arch-rival Wolverines is motivation enough — but Michigan also just happens to be tied with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead.

The Buckeyes Hit The Road, To Jayhawk Land (Cont.)

Jared Sullinger sat out today’s game, and Ohio State fell short and suffered its first loss of the season.  Kansas shot the ball well, Thomas Robinson was a beast down low, and the Jayhawks pulled away from the Buckeyes at the end, 78-67.

However, I can’t be too discouraged by the Buckeyes’ play today.  Clearly, the Buckeyes’ offense was out of sync without Sullinger in the game, and they are still adjusting to his absence in the middle.  Nevertheless, and although Ohio State just could not buy a bucket in the first half, they hung in the game and consistently answered the Kansas surges with a surge of their own.  Deshaun Thomas, and in the second half William Buford and Aaron Craft, made some big buckets to keep the Buckeyes within range — but Ohio State just could not get over the hump.  Credit Kansas’ defense, and also their making some clutch buckets to stop Ohio State runs.

I liked the fact that the Buckeyes did not quit and kept hustling, and I also like the fact that the Buckeyes’ two highly touted freshmen, Amir Williams and Shannon Scott, played important minutes in a hostile arena.  For all of the Ohio State players, this was a game that will toughen them up and get them ready for the Big Ten season.  They aren’t going to play in many venues as loud and tough as Allen Fieldhouse.

I do, however, have one other thought after today’s game:  Jared, get well soon!

The Buckeyes Hit The Road, To Jayhawk Land

So far this season, the basketball Buckeyes have stayed within the comfortable confines of the Schott.  They’ve beaten some good teams — Duke and Florida among them — but you never quite know about a team’s character until you see them on the road, playing before screaming fans in a hostile arena.

Today that will change.  This afternoon the Buckeyes will travel to Kansas to play the perennial power Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse.  And what a place for your to get your first taste of the road!  Allen Fieldhouse is one of the most venerated venues in college basketball, with its packed in fans and their weirdly chilling “Rock-Chalk-Jayhawk” chant.  The Buckeyes can expect face-painted, bare-chested KU students to yell their brains out every time Aaron Craft brings the ball upcourt.

This will be an interesting game for the Buckeyes for other reasons.  The big question to be answered is whether Jared Sullinger will play and, if so, whether he will be hobbled.  The Buckeyes offense is designed to exploit Sullinger’s many talents, and when he didn’t play last game the offense sputtered.  If Sullinger doesn’t play — and I wouldn’t expect Coach Thad Matta to take any chances, at the outset of a long season — the other Buckeyes will have to step up.

Kansas has a very good team.  They are ranked in the top 15 nationally, and their 6-2 record is deceiving because the losses have come against Kentucky and Duke.  The Jayhawks have lots of size and depth and are led by stud 6-9 forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor.  If the Buckeyes hope to win this game, they will have to play solid defense, force some turnovers, and — if Sullinger can’t play or is limited — get a big game from Evan Ravenel.

The tip is at 3:15 this afternoon.  We’ll know a lot more about the grit and determination this Buckeye team possesses by 5:30 tonight.

Coach K Comes To Columbus

Tonight at 9:30 p.m. the Ohio State men’s basketball team will take on the Duke Blue Devils at Value City Arena.  It’s a match-up that will pit no. 2 against no. 3 and the winningest coach of all time, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, against a strong up-and-comer in the Buckeyes’ Thad Matta.

The game is part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the annual event that until recently hasn’t been much of a challenge for the ACC.  The ACC won the first ten Challenges, but the Big Ten eked out the last two and hopes to make it three in a row.   As always, there are many intriguing games, including Wisconsin at North Carolina, Miami at Purdue, and Indiana at N.C. State.

The most anticipated contest, in Columbus at least, is Duke at Ohio State.  Despite the constant rain over the past few days, OSU students have camped out so they can get into Value City Arena early and start raising a ruckus.  Duke has beaten several ranked teams already, won the Maui Invitational, and has five scorers averaging in double figures — guards Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, and Austin Rivers and forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.  The Blue Devils have the size — and three towering Plumlees — to bang down low with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, and William Buford, Aaron Craft, and the OSU back court will have their hands full with the Duke guards.  Ohio State will have to play tough defense to stop the high-scoring Duke attack and will need to be aggressive in rebounding and keeping Duke from getting second shots.

Year-in and year-out, Duke is the premier program in America, and they are used as a kind of measuring rod for other programs.  This year is no different.   We’ll have a better sense of how Ohio State sizes up after tonight’s game.

Liking Lenzelle

There’s lots to like about this year’s version of the Ohio State men’s basketball team.  They’ve got the dominant inside player in Jared Sullinger, the scrappy point guard in Aaron Craft, the steady senior scorer in William Buford, and the instant offense in Deshaun Thomas.  They’ve got some talent on the bench, too.  But for me the big revelation so far this season is Lenzelle Smith Jr.

Smith is a 6-4 guard, and he plays the game the way it should be played.  He sweats and scrambles when he’s guarding an opposing player and looks like he eventually could be as versatile on the defensive end as David Lighty — who could guard just about anybody.  Smith has a solid offensive game; he’s patient, unselfish, and doesn’t force shots.  But where Smith really shines is in transition.  I love watching #32 rip down a rebound and rush pell mell down the court, head up and looking to dish.  He’s made some terrific passes, including some alley-oop lobs leading to  rim-rattling, crowd-pleasing dunks.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the kind of player you need on your team if you hope to contend for championships.  The Buckeyes play a tough schedule this year — Duke comes to town next week, for example — and they’ll need every defensive stop and transition bucket #32 can give them.

Gunning For The Gators

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes, ranked no. 3 in the polls, take on the Florida Gators, ranked no. 8, at Value City Arena.

Such early games make college basketball a lot of fun.  It’s great to see the powerhouses play each other, and unlike college football, an early season loss isn’t fatal to your chances to win it all.  In the meantime, you get a rough sense of how your team matches up and how far they have to go.  Ohio State and Florida have developed a pretty good basketball rivalry recently, and last year’s game, in which the Buckeyes beat the Gators at Florida, helped to show that the 2010-2011 team was going to be special.

This year, the Buckeyes have a lot of unanswered questions.  Last year’s team featured three great seniors — David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale — and this year’s team has only one in William Buford.  This year’s nucleus is strong, with Buford, Jared Sullinger, and Aaron Craft, but we don’t know whether the other pieces of the puzzle will fit well together.  It appears that Coach Thad Matta has tons of talent, but chemistry and playing defense count for a lot, too.  Florida, on the other hand, has a great team that will light up the scoreboards this season.  The Gators are led by guard Kenny Boynton — one of the best in the country — as well as point guard Erving Walker and forward Patric Young.

This is a game with many intriguing story lines.  Can Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes’ defensive whiz, harass and shut down Boynton?  Who’s going to guard Jared Sullinger?  And which heretofore unheralded player is going to step up and make a name for himself in this nationally televised clash?

And Speaking Of Jared Sullinger . . . .

Here’s a picture, taken earlier this year by Jim Davidson of the great Ozone.net website, of the slimmed down Jared Sullinger at an Ohio State football game.

Sullinger looks pretty badass in this picture, doesn’t he?  I frankly didn’t think Sullinger had weight issues last year — in fact, his butt got more positive comments than Jennifer Lopez’s — and I don’t think his weight had any effect on his stamina or his performance late in the game.  I think you want centers to have a bit of meat on them, to facilitate the low-post banging that is a hallmark of Big Ten basketball. Beanpoles need not apply!

Sullinger’s skinny look may indicate that Coach Matta is going to more of a “twin towers” approach where both Sullinger and Amir Williams are in the lineup at the same time, and Sullinger has the ability to step back and shoot the jumper or, perhaps, take it to the rack.  You have to wonder at what the weight loss will mean for Sullinger’s quickness around the hoop.

He does look badass, doesn’t he?

We’re No. 3!

We’re still a few weeks away from the start of the college basketball season for the Ohio State Buckeyes, and already you can feel the excitement building.  This week, the first coaches’ poll of the season came out, and the Buckeyes landed at number 3.  It’s meaningless, of course — but this year should be interesting.

I thought Ohio State was one of the best teams in the country last year, and though they’ve lost a lot — David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale were crucial parts of the rotation — they kept a lot, too.  Jared Sullinger is a year older and, from the pictures I’ve seen, a lot lighter, too.  He’s supposedly been working on his outside game to go with his excellent inside game, and if he’s developed a solid outside shot he should be close to unstoppable.  Silky smooth William Buford, who wisely decided to nix the NBA draft — especially wise, in view of the NBA strike — will be looking to wash the bad taste of last year’s last game out of his mouth.   I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how pesky defender Aaron Craft, who quickly became the OSU player opposing fans most love to hate, has developed his game in the off season.  And what about Deshaun Thomas — who at times was a scoring machine and seemed to have almost intuitive rebounding skills?  Has he been working on his defense?

It will be up to coach Thad Matta to mold a team around these guys, and it should be fun to watch.  Other pieces of the puzzle are Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who played a bit last year, J.D. Weatherspoon, who was sidelined for most of last year, and some true freshmen whom Buckeye Nation hope will make a contribution:  Amir Williams, a 6-11 center, and Shannon Scott, a point guard.  It will be a young team — Buford is the team’s only senior — and a team where the rotations and the chemistry have yet to be worked out.  Coach Matta’s always been very skilled at the chemistry equation, and I hope this year is no different.

It is rare indeed when excitement about Ohio State basketball rivals excitement about Ohio State football, but this is one of those years.  Let’s get the basketball season started!

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.

A Class Act

You so often read and hear about bad conduct by student athletes, it is refreshing to read about acts that reflect class and sportsmanship — and when the student athletes in question play for the team you root for, it is even better.

Yesterday, after Ohio State had beaten Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and after both teams had learned that they were in the NCAA Tournament, Buckeyes Jon Diebler and Jared Sullinger went to the Penn State locker room to congratulate Talor Battle and the other Nittany Lions.  It was a nice gesture, and it was appreciated by the Penn State players.

Ohio State and Penn State played each other three times and have gotten to know each other as a result.  Any time a team makes the NCAA Tournament, they deserve congratulations, and it was nice to see Diebler and Sullinger deliver their best wishes to the Nittany Lions in person.  As for me, I think there is a lot to like in this scrappy Penn State team, and I’ll be rooting for them to do well — at least until they play the Buckeyes again.

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.