I expected this to be a tough game for the Buckeyes. Perhaps, I even expected them to drop this one, but it was the way they essentially failed to compete in their first high-profile weekend game on the Big Ten slate that has me questioning a lot. Sure, the Buckeyes went through two extended scoring droughts in this game (scoring 13 points in the first 13:50 of the first half and 6 points in the first 9:45 of the second half), but it was their carelessness with the basketball and porous and uncharacteristic defense that has me scratching my head currently.
Deshaun Thomas has to be so exceptional for this offense to work well enough to win games. Yesterday, the Buckeye star was 9-of-21 shooting for 24 points. In truth, he could’ve scored 40 and it wouldn’t have been enough given other facets of the game. The only other Buckeye to reach double digit scoring was Aaron Craft, who did so with 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Lenzelle Smith Jr. added eight points. No other Buckeye had more than three points. It’s staggering how few easy opportunities this team gets on offense. Thomas is constantly shooting with one or two people in his face or a good stride behind the three point arc. The only time this team gets any good looks is when they run off turnovers and missed shots. Halfcourt offense is and will continue to be the death of this team, which is sad because they have the defensive tools to slow the pace and be successful.
As for the Buckeye brand of defense, it was absent yesterday. Sure, Illinois hit some deep lucky shots (shooting 48% for the game), but they also hit the boards hard and won that battle 40-30. Brandon Paul didn’t quite have 43 points like last season, but he led the charge with 19 points. Craft and company seemed to be unable to keep Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Tracy Abrams out of the paint as their pick and roll defense was suspect. OSU also got beat down the floor on several occasions, and the Illini victimized the Bucks for 14 second chance points. The Illini are not a particularly physical team, but they outworked the Bucks.
More than anything, yesterday got me thinking about leadership and a lack thereof on this year’s team. The Buckeyes had some down moments in the past two years as well, but Jared Sullinger was always there at the forefront, taking a big chunk of the blame and spotlight. Now, with no Sullinger, the team has not only lost its only real post threat, but it’s lost an underrated leader. For whatever reasons, Craft and Thomas simply aren’t getting in this team’s ear enough. Thomas is a great scorer, but I guess he’s more William Buford than Greg Oden, Evan Turner, or Jared Sullinger, the polarizing figures of this program for the last seven years. I was wrong in my preseason assessment that this team’s depth, improve defense, and athleticism would help cover up the loss of Sullinger. It appears too that I also misjudged how much Sullinger meant in other areas as well.
Some of this has to fall not just on Thad Matta’s ability to prepare his team but his recruiting the past two seasons. Last year’s class that consists of Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and LaQuinton Ross hasn’t performed as Matta had hoped. Sure, two are starting (Thompson and Williams) and two more are playing key roles off the bench (Scott and Ross), but these guys are all one-dimensional players. Ross is all offense, and even that hasn’t manifested much yet due to an atrophy of minutes early in the season. The others are primarily defensive players (and pretty good defensive players at that).
From what I can tell, it has been Matta’s blueprint to recruit athletic guys who can defend, and try to teach them enough offense to succeed. All around the country, however, the opposite approach is being utilized: recruit scorers and teach them how to defend. With only Amadeo Della Valle to speak of in the 2012 recruiting class, Thad Matta needs another banner recruiting class soon. The Buckeye coach has done a nice job of having his teams make Final Four runs with a mix of senior leadership and talent (Butler and Lewis in ’06, Buford in ’12) along with underclassmen star power (Oden and Conley in ’06, Sullinger, Thomas, and Craft in ’12). Maybe by the time that Scott, Williams, Thompson, and Ross are seniors, they’ll be the complement to another banner recruiting class that can form a really good team. For now, though, I’m officially concerned that Ohio State may take a significant step back in their program as opposed to just a down year, such as 2008 when they were NIT champs.
So, at the moment, I guess I’m lowering the bar. This team will remain ranked (probably) and grab their share of Big Ten wins against lesser competition. However, as they’re currently constructed and performing, I’m done thinking this team has a legitimate shot at grabbing the Big Ten regular season title. Not in this year’s conference.
(Photo: Darrell Hoemann/AP)