On Saturday, the Buckeyes suffered through their worst offensive display in the Thad Matta era, shooting just 26% as they stumbled on their way to a 58-48 loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Value City Arena. With their home winning streak of 39 straight history, what the Buckeyes are doing offensively is increasingly fooling no one, and what they’re doing on defense is now being dissected. In short, despite their talent and potential, the cracks are starting to show, and the Bucks are in danger of coming away with nothing in the Big Ten hardware category.
Former walk-on cult hero Mark Titus provided great inside information at Grantland into Thad Matta’s strategy when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, and if there’s anything to take away, it’s that the Buckeyes change it up an awful lot on the defensive end. It’s no wonder that the communication required, the personnel on those high ball screens changing, and the opponents’ scouting reports are all mashing together inside some of the Buckeyes’ heads. The true weak spot for the Buckeyes is the four spot, because Deshaun Thomas does not defend the ball screens particularly well, and when he gets in foul trouble, Evan Ravenel has an even more difficult time because he is often guarding a smaller, more perimeter-oriented player.
As for Michigan State, they are now in the position that they control their own Big Ten destiny along with the Buckeyes, with the teams’ regular season finale in East Lansing appearing to have a strong chance to determine at least a share of the Big Ten title. The other thing OSU’s loss did was give both Michigan and Wisconsin, now just one-game back in the loss column, new hope at grabbing a share of the Big Ten championship. Ohio State has to travel to Ann Arbor this Saturday, and they face Wisconsin in The Schott a week from Sunday.
Quite simply put, the Michigan State Spartans are the team best equipped to guard Jared Sullinger 1-on-1 in the Big Ten, and that statement alone could make all the difference in the Big Ten race. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix are two strong, physical bodies who gave Sullinger everything he could handle last weekend. Payne, in particular, did not back down from Sullinger on the offensive end. I’ve said for a long time now that if I was a coach facing Ohio State, I would attack Jared Sullinger with ball screens and post feeds to the man he’s defending relentlessly, because he’ll either end up in foul trouble or he’ll let you score a layup. It’s truly not all Sullinger’s fault. In fact, when he goes to the NBA, I project that he’ll be at least an average defender. The problem is that in the five-foul college game, he is just too important to the Buckeye cause to have sitting on the bench. Matta knows it, Sully knows it, and the other team certainly knows it as well.
The offensive shooting woes reached new levels on Saturday, which I do not expect to see again. Where OSU failed to capitalize was in the backcourt matchups. With Michigan State’s physical and talented frontline, Ohio State’s guards must outplay Michigan State’s backcourt in future meetings. When Buford and Deshaun Thomas are struggling, the onus is on Sullinger even more to score. When you get a physical team like Michigan State focusing on Sullinger, you get the 10 turnovers that Sully had on Saturday. Granted, in more than a few games this season, half of those chips in on Sullinger are personal fouls, but it’s been proven that the team certainly can’t count on that. Maybe it was just the perfect storm, because one would hope Buford and Thomas don’t combine to shoot 4-for-24 again anytime soon, but the perfect storm for last year’s team came in March against Kentucky, so it’s a cautionary tale.
Where do Matta and company go from here? I think it starts with finding a spark off the bench. I’m not sure who it is, but the smart money’s on us wishing that LaQuinton Ross had been here all season. He’s a three-point sharpshooter that the Buckeyes lack right now, and I’d give him some run out of sheer curiosity alone before March hits. On defense, maybe Thad needs to have his guys switch to one pick-and-roll strategy at a time and adjust in-game as needed. So, maybe this piece overreacts a bit, but if the end goal is to be cutting down the nets in New Orleans, these issues must be rectified.
The Buckeyes will look to get back on track tonight in Minneapolis against the 17-8 Gophers.
(Photo: Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch)