In what is shaping up to be an absolute gauntlet of a Big Ten conference slate for the Ohio State Buckeyes this season, game one was not much of a test. The Buckeyes struggled a little on offense early against the Nebraska 2-3 zone, but their defense, athleticism, and superior talent eventually fueled a 70-44 blowout in Value City Arena. The Buckeyes were led by Deshaun Thomas’s 22 points as Deshaun outscored the entire Cornhusker team in the first half 18-17.
Nebraska started cold shooting the basketball and truly never recovered. The Bucks sprinted out to a 11-3 lead as Nebraska hit just one of its first six shots. In fact, the Huskers’ lack of offensive prowess made sure this game was never in doubt. As a team, they shot 30% in addition to a poor 6-of-21 from beyond the arc. They also only split eight trips to the foul line, a sign that the Buckeyes were playing the tough, smothering brand of defense that they’re becoming known for the last several seasons under Thad Matta. Some of the noteworthy efforts on the end of that floor included Aaron Craft’s 3 steals along with defending opposing point Ray Gallegos to 4-of-18 shooting and 4-of-15 from three point range. New starting center Amir Williams also blocked four shots to go with 8 points and 7 rebounds in just 18 minutes. I think Thad made the right decision in replacing the senior Evan Ravenel, who is much better suited for coming off the bench, with the sophomore Williams, who is desperately needed due to his shotblocking ability and frontcourt length.
In truth, I was not pleased with the way the Buckeyes played in the first half. With 6:30 to go before intermission, the Buckeyes led just 20-15 as Nebraska’ s 2-3 zone had slowed the pace of the game and relegated Ohio State to chucking jump shots for the most part. I mentioned during the game that there are two things that despite Ohio State’s inept offense for long stretches will keep them in nearly every single game they play this season. One is the defense, led by Aaron Craft. The other is Deshaun Thomas’s offensive arsenal. Thomas had 7 points during a 16-2 run to close the half and give the Buckeyes a 19 point halftime lead.
Thomas finished with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but 18 of those points came in the first half where Thomas made just two three pointers and instead took smaller defenders in the paint, carving up the middle of the zone. Thomas got a few easy transition buckets off of the 14 Nebraska turnovers, and it was enough to jump start the Buckeye offense. The stats don’t really play it out because of Ohio State’s relatively weak schedule thus far, but from glimpses in the Duke and Kansas games, this team is drifting out in the middle of the ocean for long stretches when Thomas isn’t making things happen. Also, I’d be doing Sam Thompson an injustice if I didn’t mention his highlight reel blocked shot and alley oop slam that both occurred late in this game.
OSU got a refreshing return to effectiveness from shooting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. as well. Often their best three point threat, Smith Jr. was just 2-for-15 in their last three contests. He made up for that with a 5-of-7 showing from deep to go with 17 points in all and 6 rebounds. He was involved in what could’ve been the turning point of the game too. After a pair of missed free throws by Ravenel, the Buckeyes got a pair of offensive rebounds that ended with a Smith Jr. corner three to push the lead to 23-15 and start the run to close the first half. Given how slow LaQuinton Ross has been coming along (8 points tonight in 20 minutes) and the mighty struggles of Craft offensively (0-for-4 shooting and just 37% on the season), Smith Jr. absolutely has to be this team’s second scoring option right now. The problem is when that three point shot isn’t falling, he’s not a terrific driver and really only gets additional points with his offensive rebounding.
Ohio State dominated with points in the paint 40-16 and turned the ball over just nine times. They also won the rebounding battle 43-32. So, even though the stats will show 49% shooting as a team, I’m still on high alert as a Buckeye fan considering the level of competition and what I’ve seen so far this season. It won’t be the last time I say it: this team has a Final Four defense and a first-round exit offense.
On Saturday, as I mentioned, the opponent will not be as easy when the Buckeyes head to Champaign to take on former Ohio University head coach John Groce and the 14th-ranked Fighting Illini, just one of six Big Ten teams currently ranked in the Top 18 in the polls.
(Photo: Paul Vernon/AP)