Be Careful What You Wish For

After 13 seasons, Thad Matta will no longer be coaching the Ohio State University men’s basketball team.  Matta and OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith announced the decision at a joint press conference today.

It’s not clear whether the decision is a firing, or a retirement, or more likely a little bit of both.  Coach Matta has had some significant health issues, and those health issues may have affected his coaching.  After having an enormous amount of success for most of his Ohio State career, the Buckeyes had fallen on hard times lately, and this past season was his worst one yet.  Recruiting, which once was Matta’s forte, also has been a struggle of late, and it may be another aspect of the coaching job that may have been affected by Matta’s physical condition.

Many Ohio State fans have been calling for Matta’s head.  I wasn’t one of them.  I think he was a total class act who turned around the Buckeye basketball program and brought in some great players; by virtue of the great results he achieved for most of his Ohio State career, I thought he deserved a chance to rebuild the program if he was so inclined.  In my view, Matta’s farewell remarks at the press conference today, shown below, demonstrate exactly why he was such a good coach at OSU, and why he remains a terrific human being.

Some times you need to be careful what you wish for.  I hope the Ohio State fans who urged that Matta be discharged because they thought it will be easy to get another top coach to come to Columbus don’t end up ruing the day that they got their wish.  In the meantime, I wish Coach Matta good health and good fortune, for a good guy.

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.

Hoping To Hold Down The Flyers

The Buckeyes learned today that their (hoped for) road to the Final Four begins in Buffalo, where they will play the Dayton Flyers in an in-state matchup that’s filled with intrigue.

The Buckeyes are a sixth seed, as I predicted. Members of Buckeye Nation are outraged, but you can’t lose twice to Penn State and to Indiana and hope for a high seed. I think a sixth seed is entirely fair, and I also get tired of the whining about OSU getting no respect. I hope the players on basketball team, at least, understand that they need to earn respect by playing well and winning a few games.

That’s not going to be easy, because Dayton is a very good team, as well as being a great basketball school with a rich heritage. The Flyers play in the tough Atlantic 10, where they finished 10-6 and lost a very close game in the A-10 Tournament. UD has size and scoring. In fact, their leading scorer is Jordan Sibert, a former Ohio State Buckeye who came in as a heralded recruit and left when he wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. He’ll be looking to prove something in this game — and that’s the first intriguing storyline. The second is Dayton coach Archie Miller, who was on Thad Matta’s staff at Ohio State. He’ll also be hoping to make a statement.

But the biggest bit of intrigue is that OSU is playing UD at all. In Ohio, the Buckeyes are the big dog, and teams like Dayton yearn for a chance to show they can go toe-to-toe with the big boy, and win. If the Flyers can stay close — and with this Buckeyes team, that seems like a virtual certainty — the pressure on OSU will become immense as the game progresses. It should be a very interesting game.

If you want to win the NCAA championship, you need to beat good teams. Ohio State has drawn one of those good teams for its first round matchup. On Thursday, we’ll see whether the Buckeyes can bring the Flyers down to earth.

Survive And Advance

For the first time in years, the Ohio State Buckeyes played on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. Today they were fortunate to win a squeaker, 63-61, over a game Purdue Boilermakers team that gave the Buckeyes all they could handle.

The Buckeyes have been a cipher for months, and today was no different. For stretches they look putrid, then then look pretty good. They can’t make a three-pointer, and their free throw shooting is abysmal. Today they were 1-14 from behind the arc — that’s a nifty 7.1% for the mathematicians out there — and a limp 64% from the free throw line. Once again, they missed free throws that could have put the game away. They also turned the ball over 12 times, and a lot of those turnovers were simple mental mistakes. It’s got to be maddening for Coach Thad Matta when March rolls around and those mistakes keep being made.

With such miserable shooting, it’s amazing that Ohio State won today’s game. If they’d played a better team — Purdue finished last in the Big Ten — they probably would have lost. But the Buckeyes survived and advanced, which is all you can ask for when tournament time rolls around. We can be sure of one thing, though: if they don’t play better, they aren’t going to advance very far. Maybe this game is the one you somehow win when everything goes wrong, and now everything will click into place. Or, maybe this is just another reflection of a team that can’t shoot straight.

Shockers, Wildcats, And Explorers

Tomorrow night Ohio State will continue the NCAA Tournament by playing in the West regionals in Los Angeles.  Four teams — the Wildcats, the Shockers, the Explorers, and the Buckeyes — will vie for one coveted spot in the Final Four.  So, the regional features ferocious felines, hard-working wheat harvesters, intrepid adventurers, . . . and poisonous nuts.  I’m rooting for the nuts, of course.

We’re to the point in the season where every team still playing is very good, and very scary.  The Buckeyes’ first opponent, Arizona, certainly fits that bill.  For years, Arizona has been one of the premier programs in college basketball.  This year the Wildcats, seeded sixth in the West, are 27-7 and crushed their first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament.  They are led by three players averaging more than 10 points a game —  guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson and forward Solomon Hill — and have lots of size on the inside.  Equally important during high-drama tournament games, Arizona has a number of seniors on its roster who can be expected to provide steady leadership during the high-stress moments.  Arizona’s talented and deep roster appears to present a number of match-up problems for Ohio State.  To top things off, the Wildcats’ coach, Sean Miller, is a Thad Matta protege who knows Ohio State’s coach well, and Arizona will have a home court advantage of sorts by playing in neighboring California.  All told, I think Arizona will pose an enormous challenge for the Buckeyes.

The other game pits two teams that have nothing to lose, because no one expected them to get this far.  LaSalle, which had a “play-in” game, has already won three games in the Tournament, including squeakers over Kansas State and Ole Miss.  Wichita State, on the other hand, pulverized Pitt and then upset top-ranked Gonzaga.  Expect both teams to be playing loose and with reckless abandon; their game should be fun to watch.

The Buckeyes’ game, on the other hand, won’t be fun to watch for those of us who are true fans.  We’ll be seriously into it, with every Buckeye bucket a cause for celebration and every Arizona score like a hard punch to the gut.  I’ll watch with angst and adrenalin because I’ve truly enjoyed this season of OSU basketball, and I don’t want it to end just yet.  Let’s go, Bucks!

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.