I wasn’t sure how the Buckeyes would handle their first true test of the season. Overall, it’s hard to be too discouraged. Teams just don’t go into Durham and win, as evidenced by Duke’s 12-year and counting out of conference home winning streak, now at 97. Prior to the game, I believed that the Buckeyes would have troubled if and when the Devils shut down Buckeye forward Deshaun Thomas. In the first half, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The Buckeyes got off to a fast start, fueled by eight points from Thomas. But, Thomas’s 2nd foul with 10:02 remaining sent him to the bench for the remainder of the half. Ohio State actually stretched their 6-point lead when Thomas exited by two heading into the break, and it was thanks to the trio of sophomores sparingly used last season. Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, and LaQuinton Ross each had their own key contributions in those ten minutes. Williams grabbed 10 rebounds (6 offensive), including 7 in the first half. Scott had a pair of breakaway steals and ran the point with Craft sitting on the bench. Ross had 9 points in just 11 minutes as he showed his ability to provide an instant spark off the bench. These three sophs will go a long way in determining whether this Buckeye unit is worthy of challenging Indiana and Michigan for the Big Ten title or if they fall back.
Defensively, it’s hard to argue that the Buckeyes are already close to where they need to be. Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Sam Thompson held the Duke perimeter trio of Quinn Cook, Seth Curry, and Rasheed Sulaimon to just 2 points on 1-of-11 shooting in the first half. OSU was physical with a larger frontline of 6’10” Mason Plumlee and 6’11” Ryan Kelly, out-rebounding Duke heavily on the offensive glass 18-8. The only blemish from OSU on that end of the floor early was some slight overaggressive play that resulted in a number of fouls being whistled. This isn’t the first nor will it be the last time you hear me say that the Buckeyes pride themselves on playing tough, in-your-face defense without fouling. Sometimes, officiating crews (tonight’s included) take that away from the Buckeyes. However, the officials don’t get blame for what happened to OSU tonight, because they were pretty mediocre for both sides as Kelly battled foul trouble all night before fouling out of the game. The defense did allow 18-of-31 shooting in the second half with a few notable lapses in coverage, mostly by Thomas, but the Dukies simply made some tough shots too. It’s often the case that good offense just beats good defense. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon caught fire with 17 second-half points after virtually nothing in the first half, and Mason Plumlee stepped up and attacked the Buckeye frontline, piling up 21 points and 17 rebounds. This Duke squad is battled tested already with wins over Louisville, Kentucky, and now Ohio State.
As satisfying as the defensive tenacity was overall, that’s how lacking the offensive performance was last night. Aaron Craft brought it on the defensive end, but he was uncharacteristically lacking in ball security, court awareness, and fundamentals on the offensive end. Of all the people I could have predicted to have such a sub-par and timid performance, Craft would have been the last. We’ve seen this before, however, with Craft where he will throw in 1 or 2 hideous games in a given season. It wasn’t just that Aaron’s shot wasn’t falling. That part can be accepted and forgiven. Instead, it’s the 3 turnovers, 2 missed free throws, 0 steals, and just 1 assist before fouling out of the game. The junior point continued to take what Coach K and company baited him into, long jumpshots that didn’t fall and contested layups which he didn’t finish. In his 3-of-15 shooting performance, we saw that it can be a cold and lonely feeling when Deshaun Thomas is the only one driving the bus offensively.
It wasn’t just Craft who struggled offensively though. OSU assisted on just 6 of their 23 field goals, and on several occasions, the ball never left the point guard’s hands in second half possessions. Shannon Scott was 1-for-8, Lenzelle Smith Jr. was 4-for-12, and Sam Thompson was 2-for-6. Deshaun Thomas had 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but down the stretch, it was Craft taking every shot on the pick and pop plays Thad Matta was calling. With Thomas’s status as the weak link in the defensive chain, if he’s not the focal point on offense, there’s no reason to have him out there. Funny enough, two of the more efficient players on offense were Evan Ravenel who made all four shots for 8 points and Williams, who converted 4-of-6 free throws despite a 18% free throw mark for the season. Then, there’s reserve forward LaQuinton Ross, who I mentioned had 9 points in 11 minutes. Only one of those minutes came in the second half, however, as Matta played it safe by keeping Thompson and Smith Jr. in the game for their defense. We’ve seen this game before with Matta not trusting his young players. Thad admitted as much after the game, saying he should have indeed gotten Ross in the game sooner. Unfortunately for him, Ross is one of the few players on this roster with a high offensive ceiling. If the Buckeyes want to close out games against elite competition, they’ll need LaQuinton Ross scoring double digits and playing 18-20 minutes every game by season’s end.
Early season tests like this one are the first chance for players, coaches, and fans alike to see how a young team like Ohio State responds to prosperity, adversity, and raucous venues. With three returning starters and green sophomores asked to fill larger roles, the Buckeyes didn’t show all their cards last night. What they did do, however, is lay the groundwork for what this year’s overriding storyline will be as I navigate this season with you all on this blog. Will Ohio State’s outstanding defense make up for their offensive limitations? Can LaQuinton Ross prove to be that wild card that gives this offense some teeth? How will the Buckeyes overcome the loss of the consistent post scoring option that was Jared Sullinger? The answers to these questions are likely to change several times throughout the season.
(Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)