Time To Take a Step Back
By Brandon Castel
Saturday night was ugly.
A lot of Big Ten games have the potential to be hard on the eyes, but this was particularly brutal, especially for Ohio State fans. It wasn’t much better for the other side, but the Spartans came away tied for the conference lead while the Buckeyes are searching for answers.
It was the first loss in 40 games at home for Thad Matta and his team, but was it something more? The Buckeyes scored 48 points in a home game that would have given them a two-game lead in the Big Ten with just six games to play.
Certainly the Spartans felt the desperate sting of a season on the brink. A lost in Columbus would have all but ended their chances of a regular season title. Instead, the championship now goes through East Lansing, where Ohio State will get a chance for redemption in the final game of the regular season.
But back to the Buckeyes for a moment, because this was more about Ohio State than it was Michigan State. The Spartans got a really nice contribution from Adreian Payne, who was understandably motivated to play well in his home state against former AAU teammate Jared Sullinger, the reigning National Freshman of the Year.
Tom Izzo also got some unusual contributions from a few of his role players, but Draymond Green and Keith Appling were a combined 9-of-26 from the floor. This was not Brandon Paul or Jordan Taylor going off. This was Ohio State shooting 26 percent from the floor and getting out-rebounded in a game that was still very much in reach until the final minutes.
Everyone wants to compare this Ohio State hoops team to last year. When they stumble in a game like this, it makes that comparison much harder. Maybe the fault is in the comparison. That team lost three games all year—one at Wisconsin, one at Purdue and the last in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to Kentucky.
Last year's team was a much more complete team, which is why they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Everyone knows what Jon Diebler brought with his outside shooting, but David Lighty gave the Buckeyes an athletic four who could guard anyone from Derrick Favors to Draymond Green.
I still believe that team was the best in the country, but we all know best does not always equal national champion in college basketball. This is not the BCS, which is why Saturday night’s loss to Michigan State is not the end of the world for Ohio State.
It does, however, remind us of us some glaring weaknesses that have plagued this year’s Ohio State team since the start of the season. I’m not one of those people who think Thad Matta has to play his bench in order to go further in the NCAA Tournament, or at least I didn’t last year.
The reality is, Diebler had a poor shooting night in the loss to Tennessee two years ago and William Buford couldn’t buy a bucket against Kentucky. As a coach, you cannot control when one of your stars is going to have a terrible shooting night, but it would help if Matta had someone else he could rely on to come off the bench and hit shots the way Daequan Cook did for the 2006-07 team.
That was really the last time Matta had reliable outside scorers on his bench, and it came back to haunt them against Michigan State. Buford and Deshaun Thomas are their only two real scoring options outside the paint and both of them were frigid against the Spartans.
This is becoming a trend with Buford, who is averaging a career-high 15.0 points per game, but shooting a career-low 42 percent from the floor. That means he is taking two more shots per game and they aren’t going in. His three-point shooting is also down from 44 percent last year to just 37 percent, and he has made only five of his last 17 shots from long range.
He is averaging more rebounds and assists than he did a year ago, but also a career-high 2.2 turnovers per game. He is coming off a 2-for-12 performance against MSU and the reality is no one knows which William Buford is going to show up on any given night.
Putting In Perspective
Some are going to call it an overreaction to one loss, but it is OK to admit this team has flaws. It's OK to acknowledge they are not the best team in the country. Was UConn the best team in the country during the regular season last year?
Far from it.
The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. Ohio State ran into a couple bad ones the last two years, but they still could have won those games if one of their top scorers didn’t suddenly go ice cold.
The tournament is also about peaking at the right time. Just ask Kemba Walker and the Huskies. Ohio State is capable of putting together a similar run, but many fans are quick to assume that because they have been so good and come up short the past two years, more of the same is sure to come.
After all, how could this team possibly advance further than last year’s team, which by most accounts, was a superior team? The answer is pretty simple: it happens all the time. Few teams come along that are just so good, they can run through March regardless of the teams the meet along the way.
Florida was that good a few years ago.
Maybe Kentucky is that good, then again, maybe not. They appear to be the best team in American, but they are relying on a lot of freshmen to carry them through a tournament none of them have ever experienced before.
What About Jared?
Even Izzo seemed to feel bad for Sullinger Saturday after the way he tried to strap the Buckeyes on his back in a game where one man was not going to win it for either team.
The result was a jam-packed score sheet for Ohio State’s big man. He had 15 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. He also turned the ball over 10 times as he tried to force the ball into the basket, even if it meant going through two defenders.
The real question is what the Buckeyes were trying to accomplish offensively. They did not seem to have any rhythm or flow to what they were doing, which explains why they scored a season-low 48 points on a night where they got 15 from Aaron Craft.
This team has gotten away from so much of what worked for them last year. Part of that is the absence of Diebler and Lighty. Not only where they good scorers, but they were outstanding passers as well. So much of the offense flowed through Diebler, who was excellent at the entry pass to Sullinger.
Back then, Sullinger would get the ball inside, draw the double-team, and kick back out an open shooter. If the defense rotated, the Buckeyes would swing the ball around the perimeter until they found someone open in the corner.
We have not seen that at all this year because Ohio State simply doesn’t have enough guys who can shoot from long-range. Lenzelle Smith, Jr. has exceeded expectations as a spot-up shooter, but the disappearance of Jordan Sibert has left the Buckeyes without a single shooter off the bench.
Wake Up Call
The good news is that it’s still mid-February and there is a lot of season left. Unlike football, a tough regular-season loss can actually help a team. The Buckeyes need to rethink the way they are doing some of the things they do, especially on offense. They need to figure out a better way to hide Thomas defensively on the high ball screen.
It can all be done, and we have seen that when this team is on, it can hang with anyone in the country. They demonstrated that early in wins over Florida and Duke, but that means both Thomas and Buford have to start showing up every night.
After all, they don’t have a lot of other options.
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