Thad Matta was concerned about it. It’s happened before, his team taking it easy in the first game of the Big Ten conference tournament. There was the overtime six-point victory against 8th-seed Northwestern two years ago. The year before in 2010 as the top seed, they needed Evan Turner heroics to beat eight-seed Michigan by one point. This year, against the 10th-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers, that same “playing down to the competition” aspect happened again. The Buckeyes were in complete disarray on defense and started out disjointed on offense as well. But, an early Thad Matta timeout and benching of Deshaun Thomas sent a clear message. This isn’t going to be easy. After falling behind 15-6, Ohio State went on a amazing 48-13 run over a 21-minute span late in the first half and early in the second half. Because of their in-time wake-up, they’re moving on to the Big Ten semifinals.
At the outset, this game was just painful to watch from the Buckeye perspective. They were giving up backdoor cuts for layups. Amir Williams looked like a deer in the headlights as he gave up offensive rebounds on defense and turned the ball over on offense with timid, weak shot attempts. Thad Matta got so ticked off with the defensive effort of Desahun Thomas that he forced DT to grab some bench just three minutes into the contest. Matta had this to say post-game:
“We have notoriously started our first game like this, and the thing is, I would try the best that I could to warn our guys that this could happen. You know, I felt like we needed a timeout to say, hey, this is what I was talking about last night in the final meeting; it’s what I talked about this morning after the film session, if you’re not ready to go, you’re going to get embarrassed and we were getting embarrassed out there in terms of — and quite often, it was just the little things that we weren’t doing that was bothering me. We had 18 hours to prepare and these things were important and we didn’t do them to start the game. Our body language wasn’t good. Guys were complaining and you know, it just — we’re not good enough to play like that.”
That pretty much covers it as the Bucks fell behind 15-6 seven minutes into this game while Nebraska made six of their first ten shots from the field.
Enter Shannon Scott.
Scott, much like he has in several meaningful games down the stretch, changed the dynamic of the game when he entered. In fact, it was both Scott and Evan Ravenel who checked in when it was 14-6, just before OSU would go on their massive run. Scott actually hit two early jumpers to spread the floor a bit, but it was his scrappy defense that earned him All-Big Ten defensive honors last week and his relentless pushing of the tempo that got the Bucks some easy points to erase the deficit and build a lead. Scott would go on to finish with a perfect 3-of-3 shooting game with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. When Scott entered, the Huskers started turning it over… and over… and OVER. In fact, Nebraska turned it over 15 times and the Buckeyes turned that into 21 points. Nearly all of those turnovers came in the first 30 minutes of the game as well.
The next person I need to highlight Sam Thompson. All the Chicago native did was post a career-high in scoring with 19 points and shoot 8-of-9. Thompson had some early buckets when no one else on the team was scoring, and he hit 3 three pointers for the first time in his career. Of course, Slammin’ Sam mixed in an alley-oop and dunk for good measure. Thompson still doesn’t look for his shot unless he’s painfully wide open or has a lane to clear for takeoff, but hopefully this gives him some confidence to at least look for his shot before reversing it in the offense. His coach said, “I don’t know, Sam has been a steady this season, and I’ve always said this, when he takes his shots, he can leave out of Ohio State as one of the greatest that ever played here.” Especially when the Buckeyes face zone (it happened last night, and I’d expect it to happen a lot more in the next few weeks), they can’t just keep whipping it around the perimeter. They need dribble penetration and post feeds to move the ball.
Deshaun Thomas turned in his same, solid performance that has become customary with 19 points and 9 rebounds while wearing out a path to the foul line (8-of-9). However, it was the play of the team’s other stretch four that raised my eyebrows. That, of course, is sophomore LaQuinton Ross. Ross helped the second half surge where the Buckeyes used a 26-5 run to put the game out of reach as Nebraska failed to score for the first five minutes of the second. In just over a minute of game action, Ross delivered with three treys from the left and right wings to push the lead to 22. He also added a nice drive and dish to Thomas for a layup and an offensive putback to score 11 points in the short run. Sure, Ross wound up with 4 turnovers, but most of those came when Thad Matta emptied out his bench a little early and Ross was trying to drive from beyond the arc all the way to the basket, not a strength at this point.
For the Huskers, Shavon Shields and Brandon Ubel were the breadwinners. Ubel got on the offensive glass and shot 7-of-8 for 16 points and 7 boards. Shields is going to be a really good player in the coming years. He shot 6-of-11 for 14 points and 5 rebounds. The Cornhusker backcourt struggled mightily against Craft and Scott as Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley combined for just a 5-of-22 effort.
With the win, Ohio State advanced to Saturday at the Big Ten tournament for the 7th time in 8 years. With a win, they’ll make it to their FIFTH straight Big Ten Championship game. In their way stands the Michigan State Spartans, winners of a thriller against the bubblicious Iowa Hawkeyes last night. The Spartans have made 5 of the last 6 Big Ten Semis themselves. It should be a great matchup. Michigan State was 3-point winners in East Lansing (the Shannon Scott panic shot game), while Ohio State bounced back in The Schott with a 8-point win that was led by 21 from Aaron Craft. It’s a matchup of two coaches with different mindsets about this conference tournament. To be frank, Matta cares much more about it than Izzo does in the big picture of things. That certainly won’t guarantee OSU victory, and I’m genuinely concerned about the physical play of Payne and Nix against Ohio State’s frontline. With Amir Williams playing like garbage and Deshaun Thomas’s size given up, the senior Ravenel will be absolutely crucial to the team’s success. If the Bucks get secondary contributions from Scott, Ross, and Thompson like they did yesterday, Ohio State will be still in the United Center for Selection Sunday.
(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)