Scrapping Along

Today the OSU basketball team won their first game of the season against a ranked opponent, beating Indiana 82-70.  It’s a nice win, but it sure took a while to get it — a lot longer than we’ve come to expect during the Ohio State career of Coach Thad Matta.

This year’s Buckeyes squad has had a scrappy journey so far.  The Buckeyes have three key seniors — Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, and Amir Williams — and many fans have been disappointed in their play.  Williams, in particular, has been hard to figure out; he’s got the size, but seems to lack the competitive fire that has characterized some of Coach Matta’s other products, like David Lighty and Aaron Craft.  It is noteworthy, perhaps, that today’s win came in a game where Williams did not play at all.

Coach Matta is trying to mix the seniors in with some stellar freshman that include D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate, who led the Buckeyes in scoring today, redshirt freshman Kam Williams, and sophomore Marc Loving.  It’s fair to say that the Buckeyes are a work in progress, and the gears don’t really seem to be meshing yet.  Trying to make the pieces fit and motivate the players who don’t seem to be giving it their all, and win a few more key games in the process, will be one of Coach Matta’s toughest assignments.

The Buckeyes’ next game, against a pretty good Maryland team, will tell us a lot about whether today’s result was a fluke — or maybe the start of something better.  We’ll see whether Coach Matta can pull another rabbit out of a hat.

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The New-Look Basketball Buckeyes

Tonight Kish and I will be heading to the Ohio State-Marquette game as the guests of two of our generous friends.  It will be my first chance to watch an Ohio State basketball team that will feature a dramatically new look.

For the first time in four years, the Buckeyes’ roster won’t include Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  (No Aaron Craft!  No Lenzelle Smith!  Sniff!)  Those two players were mainstays of a series of Ohio State teams that won Big Ten championships, Big Ten Tournaments, and compiled a pretty good NCAA Tournament record.

Now they are gone, and there are some new faces.  We’ll still have Slammin’ Sam Thompson at forward and steady Shannon Scott at the point, and Amir Williams and Trey McDonald will patrol the paint, but the identity of last year’s team was mostly set by Craft and Smith.  Now the Buckeyes will have to find a new identity — and given last year’s shooting woes, that might not be a bad thing.

This new-look Buckeyes team seems to have a lot of talent, but it’s raw.  There’s a lot of buzz about a group of freshmen that includes D’Angelo Russell, a guard who is rumored to be the lights-out outside shooter we’ve been waiting for since Jon Diebler graduated, guard Kam Williams, and forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, as well as Anthony Lee, a power forward who transferred from Temple.  I’m also interested in seeing how Marc Loving, a sophomore who played well at the beginning of last season but seemed to hit the freshman wall, has developed over the past year.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the Buckeyes’ first game, when they smeared UMass-Lowell, but in that contest the Buckeyes played ten-deep and pressed for much of the game.  Whether Ohio State plays the press against a Big East team like Marquette tonight — to say nothing of the non-conference games against perennial powers Louisville and North Carolina that are coming up — remains to be seen.  For now, we’re just trying to get to know this team and hoping that they fill the hole left by the departure of two fan favorites.  I’m guessing, though, that Thad Matta thinks he’s got something here.

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 Challenge

Every year, the college basketball season officially begins — in my book, at least — when the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference face off in the Big Ten-ACC challenge.  Early on, the ACC dominated; more recently, the Big Ten has controlled.  Either way, it’s been entertaining basketball — and also a living testament to how college basketball is different from college football.

In college football, any loss could, potentially, disqualify you from contention from a national championship.  (Just ask Alabama.)   In college basketball, on the other hand, no one goes undefeated.  In college basketball, in fact, you want your team to play the tough teams early on.  Let them get a taste of tough competition at the outset, so that they will understand the need to play hard when the later stages of the NCAA Tournament roll around and your team has to realize the need to play hard, or go home.

And that’s why the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is so great.  It’s a guaranteed, evenly matched, power conference game on the schedule, and a chance to assess how your boys fare against a quality opponent.  This year, the Ohio State Buckeyes trounced Maryland as Sam Thompson displayed his high-flying act, LaQuinton Ross displayed his silky three-point stroke, and Aaron Craft . . . well, Aaron Craft did what Aaron Craft always does.  Does it mean Ohio State will win it all?  No, or course not — but it gives us a bit of a measuring stick, and some bragging rights, too.  After all, Maryland will be joining the Big Ten next year.

I love the Big Ten-ACC Challenge!

Why We Care About Who Is A Buckeye

If you’ve never lived in Ohio, you perhaps cannot truly understand the role of Ohio State athletes in the community.  They aren’t just football players or basketball players:  they are expected to be role models, good citizens, and able representatives of an important institution.  Buckeyes fans want Ohio State to have great players, to be sure, but we also want them to be great people so that they can fulfill that aspirational role.

This little video of a visit some Ohio State basketball players made to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to hang out with some of the kids who are being treated there, gives a glimpse of what can happen when good people become Buckeyes.  And it happens all the time, usually without any fanfare.  When one of my colleagues was battling cancer, he was surprised by a visit from some Ohio State football players, including one of the biggest stars on the team.  They came, they sat down, they talked with him and listened to him, and they provided encouragement.  No photographers or publicists were there, and to my knowledge no news story about the visit ever appeared.  But my friend greatly appreciated the gesture and the fact that these football players took time away from being BMOC to visit an ill stranger.

It touched him deeply, and it made me understand, better than I had before, the great significance these young people can assume — if they are good people.  That’s one reason why we care so much about who becomes a Buckeye.

Survive, Advance, and LaQuinton

The Buckeyes don’t make it easy on their fans.  But they are still dancing!

The win tonight against Arizona was a tough, hard-fought battle — just what you would expect from two great programs and two deep teams.  Arizona looked very good for most of the game and built a big lead in the first half.  But the Buckeyes rode Sam Thompson and Deshaun Thomas — whose icy shots kept Ohio State within range — and stayed close in the first half.  The Buckeyes then played nails defense to start the second half, Aaron Craft made some great plays, the Buckeyes got out to a lead, built it, and then held on as their latest clutch shooter, LaQuinton Ross, made bucket after bucket to keep the Buckeyes ahead.  Ross eventually made the game winner that advanced the Buckeyes to the Elite 8.

I give lots of credit to Arizona, which played a tremendous, gutty game — as befits a gutty team with a gutty coach.  But the Buckeyes made the shots and now get the chance to move on, and the Wildcats have to go home.

LaQuinton Ross is my new hero . . . but boy, watching these games is tough duty.

Handling The Sunday Curse (II)

The Sunday curse has finally been exorcised!

IMG_3102Today, the Buckeyes played a tough game in the second half.  After trailing by six at halftime, the Buckeyes reacted to a well-timed timeout by coach Thad Matta, ratcheted down on defense, and played a great second stanza.  Riding a career performance from Aaron Craft — who simply would not be denied on his drives to the hoop — the Buckeyes topped no. 4 Michigan State, 68-60.  Evan Ravenel, Sam Thompson, Deshaun Thomas, and Amir Williams played very well.  Buckeyes fans can hope that this team is starting to find its heart.

The win gives the Buckeyes 20 wins for the year, and also means that they will have a winning record in the very tough Big Ten.  There’s still a long way to go, but beating Michigan State is a huge win for Ohio State.  Great win, Buckeyes!  Now, keep it up!