Note before reading this…. I don’t consider last night’s thrashing of Illinois any indication of a Buckeye turnaround. The Illini are a sinking ship who are playing like they can’t wait for the season to be over.
College Basketball starts in November. The National Championship Game in New Orleans is played on April 1st. It doesn’t seem long compared to the NBA, but the way teams evolve over the course of a season, you can make a case that it’s actually three seasons in one; Pre-conference, which is essentially November through the end of the year, Conference, which goes January through the first weekend in March, and Conference Tournament time, which gives every team in the country (not playing in the Ivy League) one more shot to get to the big dance in Mid-March.
Things change. Roles are defined. Rotations come together. Players step forward while others regress. Injuries take place. Some teams grow into prime contenders as the season moves into late February. I’m afraid that one team in particular had that championship look in the pre-conference season and into mid-January, but over the last month has moved in the wrong direction: the Ohio State Buckeyes.
In the interest of full disclosure, for those who don’t follow me on Twitter, I am a Kansas graduate and big time fan of the basketball program. While I don’t miss a KU game, I’ve also seen the Buckeyes play a ton this season. Early on, the Duke game in particular, the Buckeyes had it rolling completely. Even though Jared Sullinger had been battling a back injury, the rest of the team stepped up and showed some promise. SF Deshaun Thomas seemed to have taken that next step to becoming a star in Columbus and the third scorer this team would desperately need for this team to win a National Title. PG Aaron Craft assumed his position of being the best defensive point guard in the country. SG William Buford continued to do his thing on the perimeter. Swingman Lenzelle Smith Jr. stepped into a key role and looked like he’d become that X-factor Head Coach Thad Matta hoped he would be. PF Evan Ravenel played solid defense and key minutes as the first big man off the bench. Matta also gave looks to uber-athletic freshman Sam Thompson, as well as Shannon Scott and Amir Williams. And of course, Sullinger continued to play at an All-American level. With big wins over the likes of Duke and Florida, the Buckeyes sat in the top two in the polls for most of the first two months of the season.
Yes, they lost to Kansas (without Sullinger) and to Illinois (when Brandon Paul played the game of his life, scoring 43) on the road, but these things happen. Teams lose on the road, especially in conference play. But something has happened to this club over the past month or so.
As always, Matta has gone to a short bench, essentially using just Thompson and Ravenel, but that is nothing new. In the loss at Michigan Saturday, Craft and Sullinger played 36 and 35 minutes respectively, while Buford and Thomas went all 40. Sullinger is constantly being triple-teamed and doing his best to work out of them, but the inconsistencies of the perimeter players are bringing this team down. Yes, William Buford, I am talking about you.
Buford is a guy who is still on pace to be the all-time leading scorer in Ohio State Basketball. It’s still completely stunning to me. If you went down the history of great Buckeyes of all-time, would Buford even be in your top ten? Yet, here he is, about to be on top of them all in scoring. For someone of this stature to be a senior and have such a poor sense of shot selection is astounding. It’s clearly the team’s biggest bugaboo. Buford continues to take ill-advised shots early in the shot clock and without looking inside to Sullinger first.
Our resident Buckeye Basketball expert, Kirk, is constantly harping on this fact on Twitter. Watch the first half of Saturday’s loss to Michigan if you looking for a prime example. Though Michigan starts essentially one true big body in the post in Jordan Morgan, the Bucks spent the first half seemingly ignoring their All-American. To open the second half, Matta clearly got the message and the ball went into the post a ton and Sullinger responded. In the end, they didn’t get enough from anyone else and lost to their hated rival in Ann Arbor.
Kansas, like Ohio State, has a dominant post man in Thomas Robinson. The difference between the two clubs is that on every single half court possession, the ball runs though Robinson before anything else happens. In addition, KU has developed a second post option in Jeff Withey that has taken the pressure off of Robinson, who like Sullinger, gets doubled every time he touches the ball. Teams cannot do that to Robinson the way they did in November and December. Where is the second post option for the Buckeyes? Thomas is considered their “power forward,” but he is more of a perimeter guy who from time to time backs a guy down. But he is a natural 3-man. Ravenel is a defender/rebounder type, and Williams doesn’t seem to have Matta’s confidence.
In addition to Buford’s struggles on the perimeter, Smith has been very up and down. Some games he looks like a star in the making (28 vs. Indiana, 17 vs. Michigan), while others he is a complete non-factor (nine of the last 10 games in single digit scoring). Craft was never a scoring option to begin with, he is a pass-first point guard. Buckeye opponents sag off of him, knowing he doesn’t want to take the deep shot (I know, he hit 2-3 last night) and is looking to drive and kick or hit runners in the lane. But the book is out on him there, limiting his effectiveness. At least Thomas is still providing regular scoring punch. But long gone are the days where the Bucks were scoring in the 80’s regularly (except for last night against that sad-sack Illini group full of quitters. The Big Ten slow down style, that is rampant throughout the conference, certainly plays into this.
Meanwhile, while Ohio State was running through everyone earlier in the year, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans looked like a team going nowhere. Three months later, there were the Spartans, coming into Columbus and completely out-muscling the Buckeyes and dominating them on their home floor. It’s MSU that has grown into a top ten team and has the inside track to the Big Ten title, not the Scarlet and Gray. This is something that nobody could have predicted even as late as mid-December.
There is still plenty of time for this group. Sullinger is still the type of player that can carry their club deep into March and into a Final Four. The talent is there, but the bloom is off the rose and the team has picked a bad time to be playing its worst basketball of the season.
With that said, this could easily end up in New Orleans.