As the college sports season turns from bowls to basketball, I am going to write a weekly report on the Ohio State Basketball team. Conference play is starting to kick into high gear as the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes begin a 3 month run on a march to the Final Four.
This week, the Ohio State men’s basketball team ascended to a number one ranking in the polls for just the third stretch in the history of the program.
OSU was ranked number one during a dominant stretch in the early 1960’s behind John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. This is the second time, however, that they have reached the top spot under Thad Matta, who led the Buckeyes to a 3 week stint atop the poll in 2006-07 during Greg Oden and Mike Conley’s brief stay in Columbus. It’s highly unlikely that they will maintain this position during conference play in what is an elite Big Ten conference this season. But let’s take a look at the week that was and will be for OSU and the Big Ten.
Week That Was (2-0 – at Michigan, Penn State)
Ohio State secured two close victories this past week over traditional football rivals, Michigan and Penn State. While not known for their basketball abilities, both teams have played very well in recent weeks. The road win against Michigan came just three days after the Wolverines took No. 2 Kansas to overtime. Penn State, on the other hand, had just come off two consecutive victories over ranked Michigan State and ranked Illinois and were arguably playing the best basketball in the conference. I realize both wins came by a combined 7 points but both were positive tests – one being a road win in conference and the other a home win against a hot PSU team, which had proven it could beat the best in the Big Ten.
Week That Will Be
vs. Iowa – Tonight @ 6:30
at Illinois – Saturday @ Noon
Ohio State takes the floor this evening for the first time since being ranked number one. In recent years, this has been a bad omen as teams have often been unable to hold the top spot for more than a week causing the polls to turnover every Monday. It’s hard to see the Buckeyes tripping up at home this evening against an Iowa team that has become a Big Ten doormat. New coach Fran McCaffery is still looking for his first conference win as the Hawkeyes are 0-5 in Big Ten play and 7-10 on the year. One of those conference losses was a 73-68 OSU win in Iowa City two weeks ago. In that game, OSU’s defense was a concern as they fell behind in the first half before going off for 44 points in the 2nd half behind a dominant performance from Jared Sullinger. I would expect more of the same this evening and certainly a wider margin of victory.
This weekend, however, could provide the test that results in a one week reign atop the polls. The Buckeyes travel to Illinois on Saturday. This should be their most challenging game of the season to date. Illinois is currently ranked 22, a number likely to go up after last night’s home win over 18th ranked Michigan State. John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus had an excellent breakdown of the Illini yesterday and is worth the read heading into this weekend. While the Fighting Illini are 14-5 overall and 4-2 in conference, they are undefeated at Assembly Hall in what is one of the tougher places to play in the Big Ten. Demetri McCamey is a first team all conference candidate and is currently second in the conference with 7.0 assists per game. If OSU guards Aaron Craft and William Buford can do half the job on McCamey that they did on PSU’s Talor Battle, the Buckeyes will have an excellent shot at avoiding a court storming scene in Champaign.
OSU Player of the Week
Aaron Craft – 6’2 Freshman PG
Craft had a remarkable week which resulted in him being named Conference Freshman of the Week. Matta has come to favor an extremely shortened rotation and often plays no more than 7 guys with 5 often seeing 30+ minutes per game. Craft took Dallas Lauderdale’s spot in the rotation, moving William Buford to the 2 spot and leaving Jared Sullinger as the only true big on the floor. Craft had a huge week on both ends of the floor. He was widely regarded as top defensive recruit in high school. In the Michigan game, he took charges and forced jump balls and in the Penn State game, he harassed superstar Talor Battle into a 5 for 17 and 1 for 10 three point shooting night – the difference in an OSU victory. On offense, he had 7 assists and hit four threes in the PSU game and, along with fellow freshman Sullinger, led the team in scoring with 19 points. He will be the primary ballhander going forward and could be the difference in a deep March run.
Around the Big Ten
Last night’s home win for Illinois over Michigan State was a huge boost for the Illini, who had lost two in a row on the road. Purdue suffered an out-of-conference loss on Sunday at West Virginia but remains in 2nd in the Big Ten, one game behind the Buckeyes. Both Michigan State and Illinois are a half game behind the Boilermakers heading into a weekend where all four of those teams atop the standings face off against each other. Thus, our games to watch this weekend:
Ohio State at Illinois – Saturday – Noon
Michigan State at Purdue – Saturday – 8:00 PM
Wisconsin at Northwestern – Sunday – Noon
Ohio State, being the number one ranked team in the country, obviously projects as a number one seed at this extremely premature stage. The number one seed is often nothing more than hype but the real goal is to stay within the protected seed range. This is characterized as the 1-4 seeds but with the 1-2 seeds often guaranteed to play at the location nearest to their fanbase/campus. This year, that protected site for the Buckeyes would be none other than Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. While the number one seed is premature and that is often up in the air until selection Sunday, barring a catastrophe in conference, the Buckeyes should find their way to Cleveland for the first weekend of the tournament.
Until next week, happy hoops watching.
(Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)