The Real Season Begins

The Ohio State Buckeyes have played 10 games this college football season and have won them all.  Every Ohio State fan knows, however, that the real season begins today, when the Michigan State Spartans come to town.

It’s been an interesting season for Ohio State, filled with twists and turns but with one, overriding theme:  the Buckeyes’ failure to be as dominant and impressive as the pundits expected them to be.  With Ohio State’s run to the National Championship still fresh in everyone’s minds and preseason expectations sky-high, anything other than a 60-0 drubbing is seen as a disappointment.  Last week’s win over Illinois is a good example.  The Buckeyes beat a Big Ten team with a winning record, on the road, 28-3 — and the talking heads kept talking about what was wrong with Ohio State.

22-bosa-connor-cook-crIf Ohio State can pull off a win today such talk should stop, because everyone knows Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country.  The Spartans are ranked in the top ten and would also be 10-0, save for a flukey loss to Nebraska that turned on a questionable no-call by the refs.  They’ve fought titanic battles with Ohio State, on even terms, the last few years.  They’re an experienced team led by a probable first-round draft choice at quarterback in Connor Cook, and their coach, Mark Dantonio, has turned the Michigan State football program into a powerhouse.  For the Spartans, this is a chance to avenge their loss to the Buckeyes last year and to take a further step toward cementing their status as one of the elite teams in the country.

This will be a tough, hard-hitting contest — but it also will be an opportunity for Ohio State to answer some of the critics and questions.  Can Ohio State finally gel on offense, avoid the frustrating breakdowns and penalties, and reach the same level of execution that made them close to unstoppable in last year’s National Championship Game against Oregon?  Can Urban Meyer and his coaches get Braxton Miller, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, and the Buckeyes other offensive weapons to fully mesh against a stout defense?  And can the Silver Bullets get pressure on Cook and avoid the big-play breakdowns that have made some of the Buckeyes’ wins this year too close for comfort?

The quarterback controversy is behind us, and the big games are finally here.  Everyone in Buckeye Nation wants to see a win for a great Buckeye, Braxton Miller, on Senior Day.  In Columbus, where the forecast is for rainy game-time conditions, the real season starts today.

 

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This Year’s Biggest Game

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes visit East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans.  It’s the biggest game of the year, by far, and it will tell us a lot about how this Ohio State teams matches up against an elite opponent.

Diehard members of Buckeye Nation might argue the point, but the reality is that Ohio State hasn’t played any really good opponents this year.  It’s embarrassing, but the Virginia Tech team that came to Ohio Stadium earlier in the year and whipped the Buckeyes is now 4-5 and 1-4 in the ACC.  And while Ohio State has beaten up a number of teams since then — as well as squeaking past Penn State in overtime — none of the opponents who’ve been thrashed have been impressive, period.

Michigan State is different, obviously.  Under Mark Dantonio — a graduate of Jim Tressel’s OSU staff — the Spartans have become one of the toughest, most consistent teams in the Big Ten.  Last year they beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game, and this year their only loss came on the road at Oregon, on the same day the Buckeyes fell to Virginia Tech.  Let’s just say that Michigan State’s one loss looks a lot better than Ohio State’s one loss.

What can we expect from this game?  From Michigan State, we can expect hard hits and a stout defense that doesn’t give up many points.  We can expect the best quarterback Ohio State has faced all year, a balanced offense that runs the ball well and scores lots of points, and a lot of experienced, knowledgeable staff that knows how to beat Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.  Oh, and we can expect a bunch of Spartan fans who are screaming their brains out, trying to cheer their squad to victory.  With all of this going for him, Coach Dantonio is confidently predicting a victory.

Most people will focus on how the Ohio State offense matches up against the rugged Spartan D.  That’s interesting, of course, but I think the real question will be how Ohio State’s defense will handle Michigan State’s multi-faceted offense.  Ohio State’s defense seems to have improved since early in the year, when it was repeatedly gouged for big plays — but is that because the defense is playing better, or because the opponents aren’t worth a tinker’s damn?  Tonight we’ll see whether the Buckeyes’ apparently improved press defense against the pass works well against an elite team.

Urban Meyer would like to earn the “signature victory” over a top 10 team that has so far eluded him during his tenure at Ohio State.  I’m guessing that this game will be an evenly matched tilt that will be decided by turnovers, and toughness.  Against the Spartans, you wouldn’t expect anything else.

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!

The Big Ten In The Big Dance

The NCAA Tournament is put up or shut up time.  All year we hear about teams and conferences, and then March Madness comes and separates the pretenders from the contenders.

This year, there’s been a lot of talk — from people not named Charles Barkley — about the Big Ten being the best conference in basketball.  Seven teams from the Old Conference made it to the Big Dance, and so far they’re represented the league well.  The Big Ten’s record after the round of 64 is 6-1, with the only hiccup being Wisconsin’s dismal performance against Mississippi in a game where the Badgers simply could not put the ball into the basket.  The Big Ten’s top-seeded teams, Indiana and Ohio State, both won by wide margins, Michigan State and Michigan played well in convincing wins, Illinois survived some poor shooting to beat Colorado, and Minnesota spanked UCLA in a surprising upset.  Other conferences that were touted prior to the tournament, such as the Big East and the Mountain West, did not fare so well during the first round of play.

The great thing about the NCAA Tournament, of course, is that everything can turn on a dime.  All of these Big Ten teams could lose their next game — and if that happens the conference will be viewed as an overrated paper tiger.  For now, the Big Ten has 6 teams in the round of 32, and that’s not bad.

Championship Game-Bound

The Ohio State Buckeyes may not be the prettiest college basketball team this year, but they surely are one of the toughest.

The Buckeyes ground out a hard-fought win over the Michigan State Spartans today, 61-58.  The two teams like to battle and play body-up defense, and they showed those qualities today.  Aaron Craft played brilliantly for the Buckeyes, and fortunately survived being hurled to the ground by the neck by the Spartans’ Derrick Nix, on a play that provoked a fusillade of obscenity and brought me out of my chair.  But the Buckeyes hung tough, played through adversity, and when they needed a final bucket to put the game on ice, Deshaun Thomas stepped up and rattled down a jumper.

I recognize that conference tournaments don’t mean a lot, but I’d rather win than lose and go into the NCAA Tournament with some momentum.  Ohio State has played well in the Big Ten Tournament under Thad Matta, and they are going to the championship game again — which seems to be an annual occurrence.  Win or lose tomorrow, and in the Big Dance, this team has come an awful long way since Wisconsin beat the tar out of them a month ago.  Ironically, the Badgers are the team the Buckeyes will face tomorrow, in the final contest of the Big Ten season.

The Big Ten At Midpoint

The Big Ten conference season has reached the halfway point.  Two things appear to be true:  the conference is filled with good teams, and the race for the regular season championship is likely to go down to the wire.

So far, the two best teams appear to be Indiana and Michigan.  Indiana leads the Big Ten with an 8-1 record after beating Michigan at Bloomington Saturday night, and Michigan is right behind at 7-2.  Also at 7-2 are Michigan State and Ohio State, and Wisconsin — which has handed Indiana its only conference loss, and at Bloomington, no less — stands one game back at 6-3.  Minnesota has had some surprising stumbles on its way to a 5-4 record, and the Illinois squad that came to the Big Ten schedule 13-1 and then beat the snot out of Ohio State at Assembly Hall has collapsed to a 2-7 conference record.

Indiana and Michigan have been impressive because they appear to be complete teams that have multiple offensive weapons, can play at all kinds of tempos, and pose significant match-up problems for most teams.  Not coincidentally, the Hoosiers and Wolverines feature three of the Big Ten’s best players in Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and Michigan’s Trey Burke.  The well-rounded nature of Indiana and Michigan distinguish them from the Spartans, Buckeyes, and Badgers, all of which play very tough defense but often struggle at putting the ball into the basket.

Buckeyes fans should be thrilled with a 7-2 record, because this year’s team has some obvious holes.  Deshaun Thomas is the Big Ten’s leading scorer, but he also has been Ohio State’s only reliable offensive weapon.  The other starters — Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams — have had their ups and downs, but each game one of those players steps up and scores enough to keep opposing defenses honest.  The Buckeyes also have the consistent hallmark of a Thad Matta-coached team: they play hard-nosed defense and man up until the shot clock hits zero.  So far, the team also has done what you must do in the Big Ten — win your conference games at home and steal a few of the away games against the beatable teams.

The road gets tougher for Ohio State, starting immediately.  The Buckeyes play at Michigan tomorrow night, where the Wolverines will be looking to avenge their loss at OSU a few weeks ago.  Then, on Sunday, the Buckeyes welcome Indiana to Value City Arena.  By this time next week, we’ll have a better idea of whether this Buckeye team should be put in the contender, or pretender, category.

Will The Sophomores Step Up?

Tonight the Ohio State University men’s basketball team plays its first Big Ten contest of the season.  The Buckeyes take on Nebraska at the Schott.

It will be the start of what promises to be a very challenging Big Ten season.  Michigan is undefeated and ranked second in the land, preseason favorite Indiana has lost only once and is ranked fifth, and Minnesota and Illinois each have lost only once and are ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively — and that list doesn’t even include perennial contenders Michigan State and Wisconsin.  The consensus view of analysts is that the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country.

What about the Buckeyes?  They are 10-2, but they’ve lost the only two games they’ve played against powerhouse teams, falling to Duke away and Kansas at home.  In both cases, a big problem was shooting the ball.  Ohio State plays solid defense but struggles to knock down shots in their half court offense.  Deshaun Thomas can be counted on to put points on the board, but the team lacks a consistent number two scorer.  Point guard Aaron Craft is a defensive whiz, but he struggles with his outside shot and the lack of Jared Sullinger in the middle has affected his opportunities to drive to the basket.  Guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. is a hustler but his offensive production is streaky.  Center Evan Ravenel — the only senior on the team — has decent offensive skills but is undersized.

That leaves Buckeye fans looking to members of Ohio State’s heralded sophomore class:  guard Shannon Scott, forwards LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson, and center Amir Williams.  All have shown improvement over their performance last year.  Scott seems to be playing with much more confidence, particularly on the offensive end, Thompson has developed a jump shot to go with his awe-inspiring dunks, and Ross has showed signs of having the all-around offensive game that makes Buckeye Nation wonder whether he can become another Deshaun Thomas.  Williams’ progress has been slower.  He doesn’t have a dependable “big man” offensive move, yet, but he is becoming a disruptive force on the defensive end with his shot-blocking abilities.

If Ohio State is going to contend for the Big Ten championship this year — and that’s a big if, with the depth of talent in the conference this year — it will be because these members of the sophomore class step up, contribute on the offensive end, and play tough on the road.  Their first test is tonight.