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.

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.