The New-Look Basketball Buckeyes

Tonight Kish and I will be heading to the Ohio State-Marquette game as the guests of two of our generous friends.  It will be my first chance to watch an Ohio State basketball team that will feature a dramatically new look.

For the first time in four years, the Buckeyes’ roster won’t include Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  (No Aaron Craft!  No Lenzelle Smith!  Sniff!)  Those two players were mainstays of a series of Ohio State teams that won Big Ten championships, Big Ten Tournaments, and compiled a pretty good NCAA Tournament record.

Now they are gone, and there are some new faces.  We’ll still have Slammin’ Sam Thompson at forward and steady Shannon Scott at the point, and Amir Williams and Trey McDonald will patrol the paint, but the identity of last year’s team was mostly set by Craft and Smith.  Now the Buckeyes will have to find a new identity — and given last year’s shooting woes, that might not be a bad thing.

This new-look Buckeyes team seems to have a lot of talent, but it’s raw.  There’s a lot of buzz about a group of freshmen that includes D’Angelo Russell, a guard who is rumored to be the lights-out outside shooter we’ve been waiting for since Jon Diebler graduated, guard Kam Williams, and forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, as well as Anthony Lee, a power forward who transferred from Temple.  I’m also interested in seeing how Marc Loving, a sophomore who played well at the beginning of last season but seemed to hit the freshman wall, has developed over the past year.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the Buckeyes’ first game, when they smeared UMass-Lowell, but in that contest the Buckeyes played ten-deep and pressed for much of the game.  Whether Ohio State plays the press against a Big East team like Marquette tonight — to say nothing of the non-conference games against perennial powers Louisville and North Carolina that are coming up — remains to be seen.  For now, we’re just trying to get to know this team and hoping that they fill the hole left by the departure of two fan favorites.  I’m guessing, though, that Thad Matta thinks he’s got something here.

Work Through Game, Feel Less Pain

I had a busy day at work today, with a series of meetings and conference calls. I was so focused on work matters that I didn’t watch a second of the Ohio State-Dayton NCAA Tournament game, or even follow it on my cell phone or computer. That’s a good thing, because the Buckeyes lost a heartbreaker, 60-59, on a last-second shot.

I’m sorry that the Buckeyes lost, of course, but the fact that I didn’t watch the game and agonize over every turnover, missed layup, and defensive breakdown meant that I avoided most of the awful fan-pain that I would have endured otherwise. Instead of feeling like someone had kicked my guts in when Dayton made the winning shot and the Ohio State careers of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. came to an end, the game was sort of like something that happened in an alternative universe — a bit more abstract, and a little less real.

When March Madness rolls around, employers question how much work their bracket-obsessed employees are really doing on Thursday and Friday. I would suggest that employers take the bull by the horns, recognize the predominance of NCAA pooling, and encourage their employees to schedule lots of meetings and events that will occupy their time and their minds when weekday games are on. Distract yourself, and don’t risk the terrible, real-time suffering! The employees can always record the games of their favorite team, as I did. If you learn that your team won its game, you can go home, crack upon a frosty beverage, and enjoy their game at your leisure. If you learn that your team has fallen, you can shake your head sadly and quietly erase the debacle without watching a second of the recording.

It’s not a bad approach for the ardent sports fan.

Aaron And Lenzelle Go Out With A Win

Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. played their last home game today. They’re seniors who’ve been among the winningest basketball Buckeyes of all time. In their first three seasons, they’ve made it to three Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and one Final Four.

This year, though, has been a struggle. The Buckeyes started 15-0, then hit the wall during the Big Ten season. Going into today’s game, the Buckeyes were 9-8 in the Big Ten and had lost two in a row to Penn State and Indiana, two of the conference’s worst teams. For the first time in years, Ohio State has been painful to watch on offense. They’re jittery and always seem to be out of sync and unwilling to take an open shot in the flow of the game.

No one wanted to see these seniors go out on a home loss — and I’m happy to report that they didn’t. Somehow, some way, despite missing a bunch of free throws down the stretch, the Buckeyes hung on and pulled out a win over Michigan State, which is clearly one of the Big Ten’s best. As always, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and Aaron Craft were keys. Smith led the Buckeyes in rebounding. Craft had steal after crucial steal, disrupted the Michigan State ballhandlers, and had a key dive for a loose ball that helped to nail the Spartans’ coffin shut as the seconds ticked down. Smith and Craft both played their trademark hands-on-the-floor defense at the end of the game, as the Buckeyes held the Spartans scoreless and managed to eke out just enough points to win.

I don’t think this team has the offensive ability to go far in the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament — they seem to have forgotten how to shoot free throws, among other things — but they are tough, and Smith and Craft set the toughness tone. I’ll miss these seniors, who have been so successful and who have meant so much to the Ohio State program. They have been good students, good representatives of The Ohio State University, and good people.

Good luck, Aaron and Lenzelle, in whatever you do: it’s been a pleasure watching you!

A Big Early Season (And Late Night) Match-Up

Tonight the Ohio State men’s basketball team plays Michigan State at East Lansing. The Big Ten season is still very young — the Buckeyes and Spartans have each played only two conference games — but this game is shaping up to be a big one in a conference that many people consider to be the premier basketball conference in the country.

Ohio State is ranked third in the country, whereas Michigan State is ranked fifth. Both teams have senior leadership. Both teams are experienced in playing big games and know how to win them. Both teams have great coaches. Both teams have some excellent players. For Michigan State, it’s Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, and the unguardable Adreian Payne, who always seems to make a crucial three-point shot or put-back basket. For Ohio State, it’s Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Both teams are deep. Michigan State plays great offense; Ohio State plays great defense.

It’s a wonderful match-up, all the way up and down the lineups. Who wouldn’t want to see Aaron Craft and Keith Appling go head to head, or watch the defense-oriented Buckeyes try to figure out a way to guard Adreian Payne? Who wouldn’t want to see whether the Buckeyes can avenge the football team’s bitter loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game? You have to give Michigan State, which has played a much tougher schedule than the Buckeyes and is playing at home, the clear edge, but this game should tell the Buckeye Nation a lot about how good this team might actually be.

So why in blue blazes does the game have to start at 9 p.m.? C’mon, Big Ten — how about having some pity on us working folks who need to get up early tomorrow?

Aaron’s Last Season

Next week the 2013-2014 Ohio State basketball team will play an exhibition game, and then the new season will begin.  It will be a bittersweet occasion for fans.  We’ll be happy that college basketball has returned to Columbus, but we’ll also feel a certain wistfulness because Aaron Craft — and his reliable back court mate, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. — will be playing their last seasons for the Buckeyes.

Aaron Craft is one of those college basketball players who come along once in a generation.  In an era where many players spend only one, two, or three seasons in the college game, Craft will play four full years as a Buckeye.  He made an impact as a ball-hawking freshman, and his legendary defensive skills have only grown and sharpened with experience.  He’s the kind of player that drives fans of opposing teams crazy, because it seems like he’s been here forever, wreaking havoc with Big Ten offenses and shutting down talented players.  His tenure on the Buckeyes also has been marked with tremendous success — Big Ten championships, Sweet Sixteen appearances, and clutch performances.

This year, we’ll hear about how Craft has worked on his offense during the off-season.  Those of us in Buckeye Nation, however, know that the core value of Aaron Craft will never be a silky jump shot even if he develops the greatest shooting stroke this side of Michael Jordan.  No, the essence of Aaron Craft is grit and teamwork, toughness and drive, determination and doggedness.  He’s the apple-cheeked assassin who is willing to play one-on-one defense with the opposing team’s best player and do whatever is necessary to take that player out of his game.  He’s the little guard who will fearlessly attack the basket, driving between the tall timber for a crucial lay-up.  He’s the guy who will slap the floor with his hands, sacrifice his body to take a charge from a big man, and hurl himself out of bounds trying to keep a loose ball in play.  His hustle will be mentioned by every coach and every Dad watching the game with his kids.  And, through it all, he’s been a highly successful student, an academic all-American, a good citizen, and a valued member of the Ohio State University community.

Yes, we’ll miss Aaron Craft.

 

Why We Care About Who Is A Buckeye

If you’ve never lived in Ohio, you perhaps cannot truly understand the role of Ohio State athletes in the community.  They aren’t just football players or basketball players:  they are expected to be role models, good citizens, and able representatives of an important institution.  Buckeyes fans want Ohio State to have great players, to be sure, but we also want them to be great people so that they can fulfill that aspirational role.

This little video of a visit some Ohio State basketball players made to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to hang out with some of the kids who are being treated there, gives a glimpse of what can happen when good people become Buckeyes.  And it happens all the time, usually without any fanfare.  When one of my colleagues was battling cancer, he was surprised by a visit from some Ohio State football players, including one of the biggest stars on the team.  They came, they sat down, they talked with him and listened to him, and they provided encouragement.  No photographers or publicists were there, and to my knowledge no news story about the visit ever appeared.  But my friend greatly appreciated the gesture and the fact that these football players took time away from being BMOC to visit an ill stranger.

It touched him deeply, and it made me understand, better than I had before, the great significance these young people can assume — if they are good people.  That’s one reason why we care so much about who becomes a Buckeye.

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.