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.

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.

On To The Dance

The Ohio State Buckeyes played a good game today but lost to the Michigan Wolverines, 72-69. The loss knocked the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Tournament and kept them out of the championship game, where Ohio State has made a home for years.

No loss is ever a good loss — particularly when it’s against that unholy Team Up North — but this game had some redeeming qualities. Once again Ohio State fell far behind, but once again it came back, and against a darned good team. The Buckeyes stayed with Michigan even though the Wolverines shot lights out, and they held down the high-flying Michigan offense for long stretches of the game. In the end, it came down to some missed free throws, an offensive rebound that went Michigan’s way, and a ball that slipped out of Aaron Craft’s hand.

There were lots of positives in this game. OSU guard Shannon Scott was tremendous — hitting little stop and pop jumpers, bombing in treys, making some great passes, and playing tough defense. Scott looked every inch the five-star recruit he was when he first came to the Buckeyes. If he’s found his rhythm offensively, he’ll be the perfect complement to LaQuinton Ross, who played another strong game inside. The Buckeyes got decent production from a range of players, and they’ll also get an extra day’s rest after playing three tough games in three days.

Now it’s on to the Big Dance. Most people are saying the Buckeyes will be a five seed; I’m guessing a six. At this point, it doesn’t much matter – you need to win every game, or you go home. During the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes showed a lot of toughness and will, and those are qualities that should serve them well in the days ahead. If the Buckeyes play offense during the NCAA Tournament like they did today, and manage not to run into a team that shoots better than 50 percent from behind the arc, they may be dancing past the first weekend. Those of us in Buckeye Nation would happily accept that result.

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.

Huge Win In The Old Conference Now!

I stayed up for it, and I’m glad.  Let the snow fall, and the winter storm roll in.  I’ll take it, because the Ohio State Buckeyes have beaten the Indiana Hoosiers in one of the most improbable victories we’ve seen in a while.

Remember, this is the Indiana team that manhandled the Buckeyes in Columbus.  But tonight, the Ohio State backcourt of Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft controlled the game.  Every time you looked up, Craft was driving to the hoop for a clutch bucket, or Scott was making an unbelievable steal to keep the Buckeyes in control.  And the Hoosiers lost.

It’s unimaginable, really, that Ohio State would beat Indiana in Bloomington, on Senior Night, with the Big Ten championship on the line — but they did.  They neutralized Victor Oladipo, kept Cody Zeller from domination, and controlled the entire second half.

It was an awesome performance by the Buckeyes, and an awesome coaching job by Thad Matta and his staff.  If I weren’t a working man, I’d watch it again right now.  But I am . . . which means I’m watching it again, tomorrow night.  Awesome performance, Buckeyes!

(I’ll also repeat what I’ve said earlier.  This year’s Big Ten is one of the greatest, most competitive college conferences ever.  It’s just been terrific basketball.)

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.

The Buckeyes Lose A Close One At Cameron

Last night the Ohio State Buckeyes fell to the Duke Blue Devils, 73-68, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  It was a tightly contested, entertaining match-up between two pretty good basketball teams.

The Buckeyes played excellent on-the-ball defense and rebounded the ball well to dominate the first half — even though they played most of the half with Deshaun Thomas, their top scorer, riding the bench with two fouls.  The Buckeyes were sharp and attacking and had Duke on its heels.  In the second half, however, Duke played much more aggressively at both ends of the court, and it paid off.  Duke hit big shots, Ohio State didn’t, and when Duke pulled ahead it made the free throws that salted the game away.

Duke’s Mason Plumlee is as good as advertised.  As expected, he dominated inside, scoring 21 points and corralling 17 rebounds.  The Blue Devils also got great contributions from Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly, and Quinn Cook, all of whom responded to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s halftime instructions and hit huge shots to help Plumlee put the Blue Devils on top.  As usual, Duke was helped by its awesome home court advantage, with great blue-painted fans screaming every time an Ohio State player touched the ball.

The Buckeyes’ main problem was shooting.  Thomas never seemed to get into a rhythm after his early foul trouble, and Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Shannon Scott all struggled with their shots.  Still, the game had lots of positives for the young Ohio State team.  The Buckeyes stood toe-to-toe with a basketball power on its legendary home court, kept its poise even when shots weren’t dropping, and played down to the wire in a game many pundits expected would be a Duke blowout.  Playing in a tough venue like Cameron Indoor Stadium will serve the Buckeyes well when the Big Ten season begins.  I also thought that Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel played pretty well inside — if you can say that when the opposing center scores 21 points — and their experience with Plumlee should help when they match up against Indiana’s stud center, Cody Zeller.  Sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson weren’t intimidated and showed they can make big contributions, and I suspect that Craft will use his off night as an incentive to play even harder the rest of the year.

It would have been nice to beat Duke, end its streak of home floor wins against non-conference opponents, and win the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes have nothing to be ashamed of.  Coach Matta and his staff will use the lessons from this game to teach and tinker and get the team ready for the Big Ten season.

Pointing Toward Some Buckeye Basketball

It’s football season, sure . . . but college basketball is just around the corner.  The Buckeye roundballers open the season on November 9 against Marquette on the U.S.S. Yorktown, of all places, and will be trying to follow up on an excellent season that saw the team reach the Final Four before falling to Kansas in a heart-breaker.  The Buckeyes will need to replace their leader and mainstay in the middle, Jared Sullinger, and long-time starter William Buford, but the talent on the roster seems to give them shot at doing so.

The team begins with three stalwart players who really emerged last year:  scoring and rebounding machine Deshaun Thomas, point guard and defensive stopper Aaron Craft, and do-everything guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr.  All three played significant minutes and made big contributions to last year’s success.  To replace Sullinger in the middle, the Buckeyes will look to 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams, a shot blocker who showed promise is limited action last year, and senior Evan Ravenel, who backed up Sullinger.  The other spot might be occupied by point guard Shannon Scott, who will need to improve his shooting this year, jump-out-of-the-gym alley-ooper Sam Thompson, or silky smooth shooter LaQuinton Ross.  Add in freshman Amedeo Della Valle, from Alba, Italy, and you give coach Thad Matta lots of pieces to work with.

At Ohio State, Matta has been a master at matching his scheme to his players.  Will he move Craft to shooting guard and start Scott at the point?  With the depth and quickness the Buckeyes have, will he play an up tempo, pressing game that relies on Williams’ shot-blocking prowess to erase any breakaway efforts by opponents?  To add to the intrigue, the Buckeyes play an interesting preseason schedule that features not only Marquette but also games at Duke and a rematch with Kansas — followed by the always tough Big Ten schedule.

It’s going to be another interesting season for OSU basketball fans.

Deshaun’s Decision

As expected, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has declared for the NBA draft.  I’m not surprised by his decision.  He took a physical beating in every game this season and probably decided if he was going to take that kind of abuse he may as well get paid for it.  I wish him well and thank him for his fine play for the Buckeyes.

Obviously, I’m more excited about Deshaun Thomas’ decision to return to Ohio State for his junior year.  This past season he went from a one-dimensional, shot-launching part-time player to a crucial part of the team that made it all the way to the Final Four.  He brought so much to the table — a scorer’s mentality and creative shot-making, an inside-outside offensive game, tremendous rebounding abilities, and significantly improved defense and interior passing — and was just a lot of fun to watch.  If his improvement from his sophomore to junior year is comparable his development this year, Thomas could compete for leading scorer and rebounder honors in the Big Ten next year.

Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. give Ohio State a solid core of tested players for coach Thad Matta to build around.  He’ll work to fit Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and others into the mix, and the result likely will be a team that looks different from this year’s post-oriented squad.  With the athletes on the team, might the Buckeyes go up-tempo on offense and press on defense, and look for Williams to use his shot-blocking skills to erase mistakes if the press is broken?  The potential options are intriguing.

I imagine that another year working in the weight room and sharpening all facets of his game would help Thomas’ NBA prospects — but I don’t know enough about the NBA to say for sure.  What I do know is that Thomas’ election to come back is very welcome news for Ohio State basketball fans.

A Tough Loss, But A Great Season

The Ohio State-Kansas game lived up to its billing — a tough slugging match between two heavyweights.  Unfortunately for Ohio State (and me), Kansas took the Buckeyes’ best shot and came back strong to win.  All credit to the Jayhawks for hustling and scrapping and getting the rebounds and loose balls that allowed them to turn the tide in the second half.

Obviously, I’m sorry that the Buckeyes could not hold their lead and could not make their goal of the national championship game.  Their loss, however, does not take away from what has been a wonderful season for the team and its fans.  This is a group that battled through adversity and tough stretches and came back to play extremely well down the stretch and in the NCAA Tournament.  Much as I would like to have seen the Buckeyes win and get the chance to knock off Kentucky, there is no shame in losing by two points in a hard-fought game to a basketball powerhouse like Kansas.

I’d like to thank William Buford and Jared Sullinger for coming back to play another year, when they could have gone to the NBA and made a lot of money this year instead.  I’ve relished watching Aaron Craft play, and Deshaun Thomas develop into a much more well-rounded player, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. make crucial shots when the team needed them most.  I’ve enjoyed watching Shannon Scott and Amir Williams and Sam Thompson and catching glimpses of their bright futures.  And, I’ve appreciated the hard work of Thad Matta and his coaching staff as they have gotten the team ready to play, game after game.

An evenly matched contest like the one played tonight is a game of inches; the fact that things didn’t bounce the Buckeyes’ way at the end doesn’t detract from a great year.  I know it’s tough for the players and coaches, who were hoping for something even more; it will be some time before the sting eases.  In the meantime, I just want to say thanks for lots of great basketball, Buckeyes!

 

The Final Four. Period.

The Buckeyes are going to the Final Four!  Even as I type those words, I find them hard to believe — and richly satisfying, all at the same time.

What a fine, if foul-plagued, game this was!  Ohio State took the game to Syracuse from the first tip.  They played a smart game against the Syracuse zone, and once they figured out how the officials were going to call the game, they tailored their approach accordingly.  The Buckeyes attacked, they rebounded, and they hounded Syracuse into a series of turnovers when the game was on the line.

Virtually every Buckeye made a significant contribution in this game.  Jared Sullinger overcame first half foul trouble and dominated the game in the second half every time he touched the ball.  Aaron Craft was a hustling hurricane, Deshaun Thomas made some great passes and clutch shots, and the Buckeye bench — Sam Thompson, Evan Ravenel, Shannon Scott, and particularly Amir Williams — made the win possible.  But I particularly want to commend William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. — Buford, because he kept fighting and just wouldn’t quit, and Smith, who was fearless in putting the ball up and taking the ball to the rack.

It’s so rare for a team to make it to the Final Four.  So much depends on match-ups, and who is hot and who is not, and how the ball bounces.  It’s time to enjoy this great accomplishment, and revel in the cool of the evening.

Onward, And Upward

It was a nail-biter, and Gonzaga came back as you knew they would, but this afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes ultimately prevailed and are moving on to the Sweet Sixteen.

This was a very good win against a very good team.  The Buckeyes were out of sorts early and were getting killed on the boards.  Shouted epithets rang through Webner House as the Bulldogs got put-backs and second-chance points after grabbing offensive rebounds.  But with Jared Sullinger on the bench with two fouls, the Buckeyes clawed their way back.  Amir Williams gave Ohio State a presence in the middle, and Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas brought the Buckeyes back to lead at the half.  In the second half, the terrific Craft led the way and the Buckeyes built up a 10-point lead.  Then, Gonzaga wisely went to a zone, the Buckeyes were thrown off stride, and their lead ultimately dwindled to nothing.  But Ohio State stuck at it, made their free throws, and finally got the crucial rebounds.  The final score was 73-66, but the game was a lot closer than that.

This may have been the gutsiest effort by Ohio State this year.  They played, and beat, an experienced team that is a perennial NCAA Tournament contender.  Equally important, it was a true team effort — perhaps the most total team effort of the season.  Four players scored in double figures and the Buckeyes got quality contributions off the bench from Amir Williams and Shannon Scott.  It was good to see William Buford on the line at the end, knocking down free throws to ice the game.  Buford deserves some love and respect from Buckeyes fans for coming back for his senior year when he easily could have gone pro and providing the team’s most dependable outside shooting.

So now the Buckeyes get to sit back and wait to see whether they play Florida State or Cincinnati in the round of 16 — where the Buckeyes have fallen the last two years.  Let’s hope they take a few moments tonight to reflect on and enjoy a job well done today.

The Buckeyes Hit The Road, To Jayhawk Land (Cont.)

Jared Sullinger sat out today’s game, and Ohio State fell short and suffered its first loss of the season.  Kansas shot the ball well, Thomas Robinson was a beast down low, and the Jayhawks pulled away from the Buckeyes at the end, 78-67.

However, I can’t be too discouraged by the Buckeyes’ play today.  Clearly, the Buckeyes’ offense was out of sync without Sullinger in the game, and they are still adjusting to his absence in the middle.  Nevertheless, and although Ohio State just could not buy a bucket in the first half, they hung in the game and consistently answered the Kansas surges with a surge of their own.  Deshaun Thomas, and in the second half William Buford and Aaron Craft, made some big buckets to keep the Buckeyes within range — but Ohio State just could not get over the hump.  Credit Kansas’ defense, and also their making some clutch buckets to stop Ohio State runs.

I liked the fact that the Buckeyes did not quit and kept hustling, and I also like the fact that the Buckeyes’ two highly touted freshmen, Amir Williams and Shannon Scott, played important minutes in a hostile arena.  For all of the Ohio State players, this was a game that will toughen them up and get them ready for the Big Ten season.  They aren’t going to play in many venues as loud and tough as Allen Fieldhouse.

I do, however, have one other thought after today’s game:  Jared, get well soon!

We’re No. 3!

We’re still a few weeks away from the start of the college basketball season for the Ohio State Buckeyes, and already you can feel the excitement building.  This week, the first coaches’ poll of the season came out, and the Buckeyes landed at number 3.  It’s meaningless, of course — but this year should be interesting.

I thought Ohio State was one of the best teams in the country last year, and though they’ve lost a lot — David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale were crucial parts of the rotation — they kept a lot, too.  Jared Sullinger is a year older and, from the pictures I’ve seen, a lot lighter, too.  He’s supposedly been working on his outside game to go with his excellent inside game, and if he’s developed a solid outside shot he should be close to unstoppable.  Silky smooth William Buford, who wisely decided to nix the NBA draft — especially wise, in view of the NBA strike — will be looking to wash the bad taste of last year’s last game out of his mouth.   I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how pesky defender Aaron Craft, who quickly became the OSU player opposing fans most love to hate, has developed his game in the off season.  And what about Deshaun Thomas — who at times was a scoring machine and seemed to have almost intuitive rebounding skills?  Has he been working on his defense?

It will be up to coach Thad Matta to mold a team around these guys, and it should be fun to watch.  Other pieces of the puzzle are Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who played a bit last year, J.D. Weatherspoon, who was sidelined for most of last year, and some true freshmen whom Buckeye Nation hope will make a contribution:  Amir Williams, a 6-11 center, and Shannon Scott, a point guard.  It will be a young team — Buford is the team’s only senior — and a team where the rotations and the chemistry have yet to be worked out.  Coach Matta’s always been very skilled at the chemistry equation, and I hope this year is no different.

It is rare indeed when excitement about Ohio State basketball rivals excitement about Ohio State football, but this is one of those years.  Let’s get the basketball season started!