It was an up and down season for Thad Matta’s Ohio State Buckeyes. The team ended their season last Saturday night with a 29-8 record and a loss to Wichita State in the Elite Eight 70-66 after trailing by as many as 20 points in the game. Prior to that, the Buckeyes were on a 11-game winning streak that included wins over Michigan State (twice), Wisconsin, Indiana, and lethal offenses in Iowa State and Arizona in the NCAA tournament. In many respects this team overachieved, yet their hot streak, easy tournament draw, and wide open West bracket left falling short of the Final Four a clear disappointment. Here, I’ll cover some of my lasting thoughts from another season of Buckeye basketball.
1. I’m really impressed with what this team accomplished. I don’t think anyone forgot that the Buckeyes lost two of their top three scorers in Jared Sullinger and William Buford, but it deserves restatement. That’s 32 points out of a tight rotation where only Deshaun Thomas returned as a double digit scorer. The entire offense ran through Sullinger in the post and Buford on the wing. Thomas got touches too, of course, but his scoring was much more versatile, freelanced, and impromptu than the other two. With three big scoring threats like that, anything that Craft and others contributed was just icing on the cake. All throughout the season, I repeatedly heard that this team was going to lose in the first or second round and wasn’t going to compete for the Big Ten title. Those critics were proved wrong, primarily due to Ohio State’s ability to defend on an elite level.
2. The Bucks faced some truly formidable road blocks offensively all season long. They had several, sustained offensive droughts for 7 or 8 minutes where they failed to score a single field goal. There were times when the team couldn’t get Thomas the ball enough when teams (like Kansas) deployed a concentrated, smothering strategy in guarding him. To his credit, though, Thomas improved in shot selection, stamina, and discipline throughout the season to consistently give the Buckeyes production every single night. When the three-point shot wasn’t falling, he often went down to the block to score a bucket or get to the line. His ability to shoot over defenders with confidence in the mid-range and in the post is something that is going to serve him well at the next level, whenever that may be. His rebounding, passing, and defense all made strides.
3. Deshaun Thomas will probably announce in the coming days that he is foregoing his senior season at Ohio State and heading to the NBA. He’ll do so as the #9 all-time leading scorer in Buckeye basketball history. Thomas certainly has his limitations, including his ball handling, his defensive motor, and his lack of true power forward size. Those aren’t going away, and they’ll likely keep him a second round pick whether he stays or goes. I see Thomas having success at the NBA level as a microwave-type bench player who can rattle off 10 points in the blink of an eye. As we had discussed behind closed doors among the WFNY OSU fans, maybe a poor man’s Antawn Jamison. NBA benches are more forgiving on defensive shortcomings and tweeners like Thomas. If you can score, you can play off the bench in the NBA. If Thomas somehow came back, it would be a pure shot of enthusiasm and instantly make the Buckeyes a favorite to make it to North Texas for the Final Four next year. With the exception of Kentucky’s all-world recruiting class coming in to supplement this year’s disappointing sophomores, I don’t see any team in a better spot than OSU would be if that happened.
4. Besides Thomas, you could say that the Buckeyes had no consistent second scoring threat. Let’s take a look at the double digits scoring games for the supporting cast this season in 37 games: Aaron Craft (18), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (17), LaQuinton Ross (13), Sam Thompson (10), Evan Ravenel (7), Shannon Scott (4), and Amir Williams (1). The way that breaks down, that adds up to almost exactly two of those seven supporting cast scoring in double figures along with Thomas each game. Roles changed throughout the season, but generally having three guys score in double figures is respectable. Craft and Smith Jr. as the established returning starters did more heavy lifting early in the season, while Thompson and Ross came on strong as Smith Jr. struggled down the stretch (1 double digit scoring game in last 8 games).
5. Sadly, the Buckeyes are no stranger to tournament heartbreak. They’ve had premature exits in the past to Kentucky in 2011 and Tennessee in 2010, both in the Sweet 16 round as the higher seed. Both of those teams presented a fundamental matchup problem for OSU. They were long, athletic, and strong rebounding the basketball. Matta’s 1-3-1 zone was eviscerated in 2010 by Volunteer offensive rebounding, and Josh Harrellson outplayed Sullinger in ’11. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bucks were the better team in both scenarios. Unfortunately, that’s how this tournament works. Louisville is the only team still alive that was considered a top ten team at season’s end.
6. The Wichita State team that knocked the Buckeyes out this year wasn’t all that different from the others. However, the Buckeyes just couldn’t score and had their most pronounced scoring drought of the year at the worst possible time. Rather than scheme, or coaching strategy, being called into doubt, or players not showing up (like Buford against Kentucky), the Buckeyes just rolled snake eyes time and time again when it came to making shots that they took and made all season long, and particularly during the win streak, with success. So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s just a 13 point margin of defeat combined in the tournament losses the last five seasons. Even in defeat, Matta’s teams aren’t an easy out by any stretch.
7. The sophomore class made some of the big strides that it needed to collectively make to take this team to a championship contender level. It did, however, come late in the season primarily. Both Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross were oozing with confidence from the start of the postseason. Thompson delivered huge performances against Nebraska, Iona, and Arizona, while Ross averaged 12.4 points per game in the team’s final seven games. Shannon Scott is as polished as they come with handling the point guard slot and defensively, but he must really work in the offseason on gaining a respectable jump shot. Without it, people are going to employ the same strategy against him as they do against Aaron Craft now: make him a jump shooter. Amir Williams was by far the biggest disappointment this season. Sure, he made his way into the starting lineup, but he was a non-factor in most games. His ability to challenge shots at the rim is so valuable for this team, but I’m concerned about him having to log heavy minutes next season with only Trey McDonald as a backup. He’s got to add some pounds to his frame, and he must get more hard-nosed on the glass. Without a tougher Amir, the Buckeyes might as well play small for most of the game. Put me down for Sam Thompson being the surprise breakout player on this team next season. I expect Ross to fill Thomas’s scoring shoes quite well, but if Thompson can work on his jumpshot and continue to attack the rim with ferocity, he’ll make the greatest strides.
8. This team defensively could be even better next season. I fully expect Shannon Scott to get even more minutes and challenge for the other starting guard spot opposite Craft. With the loss of Ravenel and potentially Thomas, the team retains its core elite defenders in returning All-Big Ten defensive team members Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott along with Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Amir Williams. The Bucks were best when they were using their small, active, athletic, defensive-oriented lineup that forced turnovers and fueled transition buckets. This team struggled mightily at times in the halfcourt, so an emphasis on controlling tempo will be important heading into next year. With so many players returning, the familiarity level should be high, and this should be accomplished with relative ease.
9. Incoming freshman Marc Loving (6’8″, SF/PF, 58th on ESPNU 100, Toledo St. John’s) and Kameron Williams (6’3″, SG, 62nd, Baltimore) should hopefully contribute from day one. It’s been difficult for Matta to trust non-high-profile freshman to play his brand of defense and log heavy minutes. This season, Matta had a large number of inexperienced sophomores who had to be relied on. What resulted was Matta’s deepest squad, a true eight-man rotation, since Greg Oden’s freshman year in 2006 when Matt Terwilliger, Ivan Harris, David Lighty, and Daequan Cook came off the bench. Loving and Williams both are known more for their offensive traits at this stage, so getting them up to speed defensively as quickly as possible should hopefully give this team some more offensive variety in the halfcourt.
10. But, if Thad doesn’t trust Loving and Williams next season, he’ll be back to essentially a six or seven man rotation with Scott or Smith Jr. and Trey McDonald (and possibly Amadeo Della Valle) coming off the bench in tight conference and tournament games. Matta’s recruiting strategy seems to primarily center around choosing to recruit athletic players who have all the tools to be impact defenders right away. Then, with the defense as a foundation for playing time, Matta trusts their offense will come along at some point. We’ve seen it with David Lighty, Jordan Sibert, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Aaron Craft, Sam Thompson, and Shannon Scott in just the past few years.
11. I’ve gotten all this way without talking about Aaron Craft. He just continues to amaze with his ability stifle the best guards in college basketball as well as lead his team on both ends of the floor. He really struggled in the middle of the season with his shot, found it late by using dribble penetration, and lost it again in the final game. Aaron Craft the senior should truly be a sight to behold. If the Buckeyes have another 28-win or greater season next year and walk off with some more conference or Final Four hardware, Craft will go down as one of the greatest players and leaders to come through Columbus.
12. This program has come just so far in nine years under Matta. I stress that needs to be remembered and celebrated more often than it is. In a football dominant school, Thad has turned the Buckeyes into a top ten program in the nation. Their sustained success in one of college basketball’s best conferences proves that Matta can coach, recruit, and motivate with the best of them. Rather than being just a Kevin Durant at Texas, Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, or Perry Jones III at Baylor-type scenario, Matta has continually reloaded with a mix of elite recruits (Oden, Conley Jr., Sullinger, Thomas) and glue guys that are the foundation of his program (Jon Diebler, David Lighty, Aaron Craft). The following in Columbus and beyond is just so massively upgraded from when I walked onto campus as a wide-eyed 18-year-old in 2006. It’s really something to behold, and I’m damn proud of it.
(Photo: Terry Gilliam/AP)