Working To Make The Sixteen Sweet

Tomorrow night the Buckeyes play an NCAA Tournament regional semifinal game against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.  The round of games is called the Sweet Sixteen, but recently it has had a decidedly sour taste for Ohio State.

This is the third year in a row the Buckeyes have made it this far — and the last two years they went no farther.  In 2010 they lost a heart-breaker to Tennessee, 76-73; last year they arguably had the best team around and fell in a stomach-churning loss to Kentucky, 62-60.  The close scores made the losses more agonizing, and Buckeyes fans don’t want to endure another.

Ohio State and Cincinnati are in the same state but don’t play each other often.  Nevertheless, they have a rich basketball history.   Cincinnati beat the Buckeyes in two NCAA championship games 50 years ago, during the Jerry Lucas era.  Some of my friends would dearly like to get belated payback this year.

It’s safe to say that the participants in this year’s game won’t be thinking much about Lucas and the Buckeyes of the early ’60s.  They’ll be focused on stopping a UC team that is tough, scrappy, and balanced, with four players who average in double figures.  The team bounced back after a humiliating loss to crosstown rival Xavier — in a game that ended in an awful bench-clearing brawl — to play well in their conference and advance to the Big East title game.  UC’s experience in the Big East means they won’t be intimidated by the setting or the opponent.

As for the Buckeyes, they can’t afford another start like they had against Gonzaga, which dominated the boards early and got Jared Sullinger into foul trouble.  They’ll need to rebound better and will be looking for Lenzelle Smith to crash the glass and bring hustle on defense.  They’ll want to get the terrific contributions from Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft that they got against Gonzaga.  Finally, they’ll need big games from Sullinger and, especially, William Buford, who will be looking to exorcise some demons from last year’s loss to Kentucky.

The game tips tomorrow night at (ugh!) 9:45 p.m.  Already, the insides of the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation are churning.

Concluding The Kohl Center Curse (Finally!)

The Ohio State Buckeyes have finally — finally! — won a game at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.  They beat the Badgers today today, 58-52, in as tough and hard-fought a game as you would ever expect to see.

Jared Sullinger was a beast on the inside; he scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Wisconsin really had no answer for him.  Deshaun Thomas showed why he is one of the best forwards in the Big Ten, grabbing many rebounds and making some clutch buckets.  Aaron Craft played a standout defensive game against Badgers stud point guard Jordan Taylor, and made some key free throws to help ice the game, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., played a fine floor game, and William Buford — poor, much maligned William Buford, who just could not get a shot to go down — made a three-point dagger in crunch time.

This is the kind of game you expect to see in a balanced conference like the Big Ten, where road wins are like pearls of the highest price.  Wisconsin played its normal deliberate game and its in-your-face defense, but today, the Buckeyes were just a little bit better. Winning at the Kohl Center is a huge step forward for Ohio State, because winning in an intimidating atmosphere says a lot about your team’s mental toughness — and there are a lot of challenging games yet to be played.

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.