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!

 

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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.

Hoping To Bounce The Orange

When the NCAA Tournament field of 64 has been reduced to eight, typically only power programs from big conferences remain.  That’s true again this year, where the Elite Eight includes two teams each from the SEC, the Big 12, and the Big East, and one each from the Big Ten and the ACC.

The Ohio State Buckeyes will hope to carry the Big Ten flag forward when they play tonight against the Big East’s best team, the Syracuse Orange.  It will be a battle of two seasoned, highly regarded teams that spent the entire season ranked in the top ten.

Syracuse beat another Big Ten team, Wisconsin, to get to this point.  The Badgers almost pulled that game out because they canned 14 three-pointers shooting over the fabled Syracuse zone that Coach Jim Boeheim has perfected.  That’s not likely to happen tonight, because Ohio State simply doesn’t have the three-point shooters to take that approach unless William Buford gets hot.

The Buckeyes will be looking to break down the zone in other ways, by trying to get the ball to Deshaun Thomas at the elbow of the lane and have him shoot mid-range jumpers before Syracuse players can rotate over or dish to Jared Sullinger and others if holes in the zone open up.  Thomas has been a stud in the Tournament, and the Buckeyes hope his strong showing will continue.

The other key on offense will be rebounding.  The Buckeyes have been a good rebounding team, and teams that play zone — Syracuse included — often get outrebounded because they can’t get a body on every offensive player when the ball comes off the glass.  Syracuse’s rebounding challenges were compounded when they lost their big man, Fab Melo, for the tournament.  Ohio State will need to crash the boards, and that means Sullinger, Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. will need to hustle and scrap for put-back buckets on the offensive end.

Syracuse has a lot of long and talented players who can run, shoot, and finish near the rim. They like to play up-tempo and score fast-break points off turnovers.  They are led in scoring by forward Kris Joseph and guard Dion Waiters, but the match-up I’ll have my eye on will be Ohio State’s Aaron Craft against Syracus guard Scoop Jardine.  Jardine is terrific, and Syracuse counts on him to get the ball to the players who can finish.  Craft will be trying to disrupt that and will be playing his tremendous pressure on the ball style to do so.  If Craft can get Jardine out of his rhythm and out of his game without getting himself into foul trouble, the Buckeyes will have a chance to move forward.

In the Elite Eight you expect to see tough games between great teams.  We’ll see one tonight.

 

Eightward Bound

It was a battle, and the outcome was long in doubt, but Ohio State pulled out a win over Cincinnati tonight. Through their 81-66 victory, the Buckeyes advance to the Elite Eight and avoided getting knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen for the third year in a row.

This was a tough, tough win — just what you would expect in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.  The Buckeyes rode the stellar play of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger to a 12-point halftime lead.  Thomas, in particular, was spectacular, making shots from all over the floor as the Bearcats tried desperately to find someone who could match up with him.

The second half was another story, however.  The Buckeyes saw their lead vanish as Cincinnati hustled, forced turnovers, and shot lights out.  Credit to the Bearcats for playing a gutty game and not giving up.

The Buckeyes fell behind, but dug down deep, shut down the Bearcats, and pulled away.  Sullinger and Thomas were great, but Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. provided the energy and the gritty defense that frustrated the Bearcats and allowed the Buckeyes to rebuild their lead and cruise to victory. Craft seemed to be just about everywhere, knocking balls loose, hitting the floor, and driving the Bearcat big men and guards alike to distraction with his quick hands.

Smith, on the other hand, made some great passes, got some crucial buckets, and helped to shut down the Bearcats when the game was in the balance.  This game showed why Coach Thad Matta likes to have Lenzelle in the lineup.  When he is playing his game, he contributes in so many different ways.

Both Smith and Craft contributed on offense in the second half; Smith had 15 points, and Craft ended with 11, most of which came on free throws.  William Buford, on the other hand, probably is glad he’ll never see another Sweet Sixteen game — he seemed out of sorts all game and could not get the ball to go down.  We’ll hope he’s gotten the game out of his system, because we’ll need him to score in the next game.

So, the Buckeyes advance to play Syracuse.  They’ll need to play well and shoot better from the free throw line, but we’ll worry about that game later.  For now, the Buckeyes have moved on and knocked Cincinnati out of the tournament in the process.

Somewhere, Jerry Lucas is smiling.

 

Working To Make The Sixteen Sweet

Tomorrow night the Buckeyes play an NCAA Tournament regional semifinal game against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.  The round of games is called the Sweet Sixteen, but recently it has had a decidedly sour taste for Ohio State.

This is the third year in a row the Buckeyes have made it this far — and the last two years they went no farther.  In 2010 they lost a heart-breaker to Tennessee, 76-73; last year they arguably had the best team around and fell in a stomach-churning loss to Kentucky, 62-60.  The close scores made the losses more agonizing, and Buckeyes fans don’t want to endure another.

Ohio State and Cincinnati are in the same state but don’t play each other often.  Nevertheless, they have a rich basketball history.   Cincinnati beat the Buckeyes in two NCAA championship games 50 years ago, during the Jerry Lucas era.  Some of my friends would dearly like to get belated payback this year.

It’s safe to say that the participants in this year’s game won’t be thinking much about Lucas and the Buckeyes of the early ’60s.  They’ll be focused on stopping a UC team that is tough, scrappy, and balanced, with four players who average in double figures.  The team bounced back after a humiliating loss to crosstown rival Xavier — in a game that ended in an awful bench-clearing brawl — to play well in their conference and advance to the Big East title game.  UC’s experience in the Big East means they won’t be intimidated by the setting or the opponent.

As for the Buckeyes, they can’t afford another start like they had against Gonzaga, which dominated the boards early and got Jared Sullinger into foul trouble.  They’ll need to rebound better and will be looking for Lenzelle Smith to crash the glass and bring hustle on defense.  They’ll want to get the terrific contributions from Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft that they got against Gonzaga.  Finally, they’ll need big games from Sullinger and, especially, William Buford, who will be looking to exorcise some demons from last year’s loss to Kentucky.

The game tips tomorrow night at (ugh!) 9:45 p.m.  Already, the insides of the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation are churning.

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 Survive, And Move On

The Buckeyes beat Loyola (Maryland) tonight, 78-59, behind the studly play of Deshaun Thomas, who seemed to grab every rebound and get every put-back bucket.

The score isn’t important, and the fact that Thomas led the way isn’t really important, either.  What’s important is that the Buckeyes survive and move on — and that is what the NCAA Tournament is all about.  That is what last year’s Big Dance confirmed.  You don’t have to be the best team, you just have to survive by hook or crook in the game at hand and move forward.

The Buckeyes have done so tonight, moving past the Greyhounds and into the field of 32.  They did it even though their game started after 10 p.m., which is pretty ridiculous when you think about it.  These are college kids who just took exams, and purely because of money they start their national championship tournament after 10 p.m.  on a weeknight.  But that’s a posting for another day.

Next up for the Buckeyes is Gonzaga, which pulverized West Virginia tonight.  We’ll figure out later whether the Buckeyes match up well or poorly against Gonzaga — for now, the big point is that the Buckeyes are still alive, and so is every other Big Ten team that has played.  We’ll see how the Tournament goes, but right now the people who were saying the Big Ten was tough this year have a pretty good argument.