More Than Ho Hum

I think I can guess the reaction of 99.9% of the members of Buckeye Nation to last night’s 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers:  disappointment, and a shrug.

Disappointment, because we all hoped to see the Cardale Jones and Buckeye offense that took the team to the National Championship last year — and we didn’t.  The offense got off to its customary slow start again last night, as it has in most of the games Jones has started this year.  When you’re getting close to halftime and a team that is filled with speed and playmakers hasn’t scored yet, it’s frustrating.  Is it because of Cardale Jones, or because different coaches are calling the plays this year?  We don’t know for sure — but the offense just looks totally out of sync when Twelve Gauge takes the snaps.

A shrug, because we recognize that a win is a win and we have confidence that the offense will play better with J.T. Barrett at quarterback.  We see other teams falling from the ranks of the unbeatens — look at what happened to Michigan State, for goodness’ sake — and we know that even if Ohio State’s win looked sluggish and uninspired, it still goes in the W column.  And in college football, staying unbeaten is still the best way to make it to the playoffs.

I think we might want to do more than take a ho hum attitude about last night’s game, however.  Sure, there are some good things to take away from it, like an improved performance from the defense, which produced a touchdown and came reasonably close to pitching a shutout.  Some will even argue that it’s a positive that the game quashes any lingering issues about a quarterback controversy.

But the big issue in my mind is about confidence.  Last year, when J.T. Barrett went down, Cardale Jones had not tasted failure.  The offense was rolling already, and CJ played footloose and fancy-free.  When he hit some long balls against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, his confidence went through the roof.  This year, though, he has had his struggles and — equally important — the team has, too.  They don’t play with nearly the same confidence with Jones at quarterback.  He knows it, and they know it.  It would be very difficult for the team and #12 to recapture the moxie they displayed last year.

What does it mean?  Increasingly, it looks like this:  members of Buckeye Nation had better hope that J.T. Barrett keeps his nose clean and his body uninjured if Ohio State wants to have a realistic chance to defend last year’s title on the field.

Bullet, Dodged

Today, Ohio State fans need to remind themselves that a win is a win is a win.

Playing on the road, the weekend after a huge win, against a fired-up team that was looking to gain respect, today’s game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers had all of the elements of a letdown loss.  Add in miserable cold and blowing snow — hey, this is the Big Ten in November, after all — that probably contributed to at least some of OSU’s three turnovers and you’ve got a toxic brew for the favorite that is trying to avoid the crushing upset.

That’s why today’s 31-24 Ohio State win was so tough — but the point is, they won.  Every member of Buckeye Nation wonders why Ohio State can’t crush every opponent, but college sports don’t work that way.  Mistakes happen.  Young people lose focus.  And teams like Minnesota — which I think is steadily improving and has one of the very best coaches in the Big Ten — also have good athletes who can make plays.

So let’s not get too upset about today’s game.  Focus instead on the steady hand of J.T. Barrett and the bullet dodged.  Ohio State lives to fight another day.  Not every team can say that.

Number 8

The Ohio State football team took a giant leap forward in the college football playoff rankings this week, moving up to number eight.  Of course, that only means that the Buckeyes have to pass four more teams to make it into one of the coveted top four spots that will earn a spot in the first-ever college football playoff.

Can they do it?  Beats me!  I’m not sure exactly how the rankings are devised, and what the voters are considering as they try to figure out whether one-loss Ohio State should be ahead or behind of one-loss Oregon, one-loss TCU, and one-loss Baylor.  I don’t think anybody else really knows, either.

But I do know this:  if Ohio State wants to make it, they had better win every game, starting with the game at dramatically improved Minnesota this week.  In essence, that means Ohio State’s playoff process has started already, and it’s a single-elimination system.  If Ohio State doesn’t win, and convincingly, as they play the teams on the remainder of their schedule they can forget about the playoffs.  So the college football gurus haven’t created a four-team, two-game playoff; they’ve really created a multi-team, multi-game playoff process that will last for more than a month.

It’s all very interesting, but it just means Ohio State had better be focused on Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota between now and noon on Saturday.

Those Baffling Buckeyes

Last night some friends graciously invited Kish and me to join them for the Ohio State-Minnesota basketball game. We had a fine time as the Buckeyes won, and I got my first personal exposure to a Buckeyes team that has a definite Jekyll and Hyde character.

IMG_1799The first half was dismal. The Buckeyes were completely inept on offense — fumbling the ball away, passing around the perimeter fruitlessly as the shot clock wound down, then launching a poor shot and not getting the rebound — and scored only 18 points. It was painful to watch. A middle-of-the-pack Minnesota team went into the locker room with a ten-point lead, and the Schott was totally deflated.

The second half was a completely different story. Led by high-flying Sam Thompson, the Buckeyes came out and attacked the basket relentlessly, pushed the ball up court at every opportunity, hit the boards to get some crucial rebounds, and quickly regained the lead. The Buckeyes were aided by steals and blocks on defense that were promptly turned into fast-break opportunities and either scores or foul shots. Ohio State held Minnesota to only 18 points in the second half, scored 46 points of their own, and won going away.

This team is a head-scratcher, and their record shows it. The Buckeyes started 15-0 and made it to number 3 in the polls, then floundered badly in the Big Ten in a stretch that saw them lose 5 of 6 games. Since then, the team has won 6 of 7, but it has been beset by stretches where it seems like the most offensively challenged team in college hoops.

Members of Buckeye Nation keep hoping that this team will find its identity offensively. Last night’s performance shows that the Buckeyes have the tools to play an up-tempo game, and with their apparent lack of outside shooters that approach seems like their best hope. As the Big Ten regular season draws to a close, however, we’re left to wonder: which team will show up — the bumbling crew that put up only 18 points in the first half, or the thrilling fast breakers who took the ball to the rim and cleaned the glass of every missed shot? Will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Hyde?

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.

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.