Dodging A Late-Night Bullet

I hate college basketball games that start at 9 p.m.  After last night’s close shave against the Purdue Boilermakers, I’m guessing the Ohio State Buckeyes feel the same way.  The Buckeyes barely pulled out a win, 87-84, to keep their home court winning streak alive and stay atop the Big Ten.

After a series of games in which they shut down their opponents, the Buckeyes were porous indeed against Purdue. The Boilermakers’ fine coach, Matt Painter, figured out a high ball screen approach that consistently got Purdue players opportunities for easy layups and dunks or open three-pointers, and his players executed.  D.J. Byrd and Kelsey Barlow, in particular, seemed unstoppable — but the Buckeyes also seemed to be confused and a step behind on defense.

Offensively, the Buckeyes played a good game, ran well-designed set plays, and crashed the boards to get second-chance points.  With Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft on the bench with foul trouble, the Buckeyes rode senior William Buford, and he carried them to victory with 29 points.  Equally important, the Buckeyes performed under pressure in a close game, sank free throws when they needed to, and executed with less than two minutes to go — which was a good thing, because Purdue continued to drain three-pointers until the very end.

The college basketball season is a long one.  As it progresses, teams can improve or regress, or be distracted by looking around at how others are doing.  Lots of Ohio State fans and TV commentators have talked recently about how the Buckeyes stack up against other highly ranked teams. Last night’s game just shows that such talk is pointless.  Ohio State doesn’t have Kentucky or Syracuse on its schedule. Instead, it’s only going to be playing Big Ten teams for a while — and as last night’s great Purdue performance showed, the Big Ten teams present plenty of challenges.

I’m sure Coach Thad Matta will be talking to the Buckeyes about learning from last night’s close call, redoubling their efforts on defense, and focusing exclusively on their next Big Ten game and giving a better performance.  And a better performance will be needed, too, because the Michigan State Spartans, who are battling the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead, are coming to town on Saturday.

Showdown In West Lafayette

Tomorrow afternoon two teams will play a game that will go a long way toward deciding who will be the regular season Big Ten basketball champion.  Ohio State travels to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers.

A lot is on the line.  The Buckeyes are 12-1 in the conference and have a two-game lead over second-place Purdue.  In their last outing, the Boilermakers won a huge home game against Wisconsin to take sole possession of second place.  They now look to topple the Buckeyes and pull within one game of the Big Ten lead.  They also will be looking for some revenge against Ohio State, which crushed Purdue 87-64 when the teams matched up earlier this season at Value City Arena.

The last game between these two teams is meaningless.  It was one of those magical games where everything went right for Ohio State and everything went wrong for Purdue.  (I have the game DVR’d and will probably not erase it for months; it is too much fun to watch.)  The rematch undoubtedly will be different.  Mackey Arena is one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten, and this year Purdue is undefeated at home against Big Ten opponents.  In the first game between these teams, JaJuan Johnson played well and scored 22 points, but he was almost a one-man team.  The Buckeyes managed to marginalize Purdue’s excellent shooting guard E’Twaun Moore and neutralize the Boilermakers’ waterbug-quick point guard, Lewis Jackson.  Aaron Craft had a breakout game for the Buckeyes, playing hard-as-nails defense and blowing past the Boilermakers’ defense for some embarrassingly easy layups.

Craft and the Buckeyes won’t surprise Purdue this time.  Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten and he will have the Boilermakers ready for this game.  Moore and Jackson, in particular, will be pumped for a chance to redeem themselves against the Buckeyes.  I expect another very difficult road test against a well-coached opponent that will be playing with a lot of talent and a lot of pride.