“I think they haven’t played against the style of play like we play. I think they play a lot of teams that like to slow it up, and they can really get into them. Because we pressure so much and we go against it every day in practice, I don’t think it’s something we’ll have a problem with.
Those were the words of Iona guard Lamont “Momo” Jones this week prior to last night’s game. The transfer from Arizona had an air of confidence about him heading into this 15-2 matchup against the Ohio State Buckeyes. There’s no doubt that two wins by 15 seeds in last year’s tournament (as well as one yesterday during this game) aided that confidence. It’s a fair argument that Ohio State has only faced a few teams that like to play an up tempo pace. However, that air of confidence was squeezed out of Jones and Iona’s third highest-scoring offense by Aaron Craft and company. Forty minutes later, Jones made just 3-of-14 shots for 9 points and the Buckeyes forced 19 turnovers, scored 29 points off those turnovers, and scored 34 points via the fastbreak as they obliterated the Gaels early in the second half and cruised to a 95-70 victory in their NCAA Tournament opener.
The takeaway play from this game came early in the first half. Aaron Craft deflected the basketball into the Iona backcourt. Sprinting to the ball, Craft launched himself out of bounds full extension, heaving the ball behind him to Shannon Scott before twirling and crashing to the floor. Scott would push the ball up the floor and feed Evan Ravenel for the dunk. It was one of those signature-type plays that people will take away from this tournament, but really, those amazing full-throttle plays are what Aaron Craft is all about and has been all about since he stepped foot on OSU’s campus. The Buckeyes used a 27-4 run led by those highlight steals and a few blocks from Thompson, Williams, and Ravenel to take a 19-point lead after falling behind 4-0 at the outset.
Again the numbers don’t do it justice, but Craft led the defensive attack that absolutely made life miserable for Iona. Craft’s 6 steals (he had 7, and a scoring decision took one away) were one short of his career high of seven against Iowa two years ago, but he had countless other deflections. Offensively, it was not a strong shooting game for the Findlay product (2-of-8, 4 points), but he dished out 7 assists, turning it over just twice, as his dribble penetration and vision up the court generated buckets for the Bucks. Craft spent time defensively on both Sledge (6-of-13, 2o points) and Jones, but #4 was everywhere on the floor all at once. Deshaun Thomas may be the team’s best overall player, but make no mistake, Aaron Craft is the leader, the heart, the fiery spirit that drives this Ohio State squad. Craft said post-game, “We didn’t want to make it a one‑on‑one type game. This was about our team and how we needed to play defense together, and that’s really how we did a good job of taking them out of their offense and kind of making them have to go one on one at times.”
Offensively, there were several supporting players who answered the bell, but none moreso than sophomore Sam Thompson. Thompson was responsible for an array of alley-oop slams, each more powerful than the last as he provided Ohio State with a second scoring punch to Thomas. Thompson was 6-of-10 from the field and a perfect 8-of-8 from the line despite being just a 65% shooter on the season. With a career-high 20 point, 10-rebound double-double effort, Thompson continued his surge of growth right before our very eyes. Each powerful thump was a momentum creator, but the most critical one came after Iona had cut that 19-point lead down to just 4 with 25-10 run of their own with just under a minute and a half to play before half. Thompson took a right side feed from Scott and sent the ball in with a thud, starting a 6-0 mini-run that allowed OSU to take a double digit lead into the break.
“An alley‑oop is a great team play. It shows two guys on the same page offensively. Shannon and Aaron did such a great job getting into the teeth of the defense, having the defense collapse, and just letting me do the easy part and finishing it,” Thompson said following the win. “It really gives our team a boost offensively and defensively and definitely gives the other team something to think about.” If Thompson can continue with this additional scoring effort while playing good defense and hitting the boards, his minutes will only increase for the rest of the tourney, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for the two years following this one. For Sam, the key is aggressiveness. He needs to look for his own shot or to drive before immediately reversing the ball in the halfcourt offense.
When Ohio State got their second opportunity to crush the Gaels into dust, they did not squander it. They opened the second half with a 9-0 run, six of those points coming from Thompson. Iona would never get closer than 12 again as the Bucks eventually stretched their advantage to 30 points before emptying the end of their bench. Deshaun Thomas avoided the headlines in this game because of the amazing efforts of Thompson and Craft, but he led the team in scoring with his 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting to break out of his shooting slump of late. He made all three three-point attempts that he shot, and it was a good sign to see him opt for many more attempts inside the arc. Against Iona’s shorter frontline, Thomas went to work by using ball fakes and most often shooting mid-range jumpers right over top of the Gael defenders.
Unselfish is one of the best words I could think of when it came to the effort last night. Ohio State showed that in their willingness to pass the ball on the fastbreak as well as the halfcourt offense. Shannon Scott led that effort with another quiet, efficient, and vital performance with 7 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists, and 1 block in just 25 minutes. In fact, the Buckeyes as a team had 25 assists on their 34 field goals while turning it over just 10 times. “We said going in, if they want to run, let’s run,” Matta added post-game. “Our biggest concern, though, with that said is we weren’t going to trade baskets with them. I think that’s what happens a lot of time when we said we’re going to run with them. We don’t care if we score. We’re going to run it back this way. That was not going to happen tonight. ” In short, the Buckeyes showed that this type of pace is not going to bother them.
Transitioning to Sunday, it’s a good thing Ohio State got this type of first-round matchup, because the tenth-seed Iowa State Cyclones bring a lot of the same offensive firepower to the table. TD mentioned in our podcast that the Cyclones are the type of hot-shooting team that could give the Buckeyes some trouble after watching them take his Jayhawks into overtime twice this season. The Cyclones beat Notre Dame easily 76-58 following OSU’s victory, hitting 9-of-21 three pointers, and they were led by Georges Niang’s 19 points. With their tallest starter at just 6’7″, the Buckeyes should be able to use size to their advantage and go to their small ball lineup with Thomas playing the five if things don’t work out staying big. Iowa State does however boast five players with at least 37 threes made, so the Buckeyes will have to close out on shooters well in order to advance to next week and what would be their fourth straight Sweet 16.
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)