Last night was an eye opening evening in my favorite sport. As I laid in my bed with a wicked sore throat, I had a few moments of clarity as conference play began all over the country. Iowa State, which is one of the five remaining unbeaten teams, is to me the clear front runner in the Big 12, a league that has been won by Kansas nine consecutive years. The SEC is easily the worst of the power conferences; one of their alleged better teams, LSU, was destroyed at home by Tennessee last night and looked bad doing so. But my biggest perception change for the better came from a team that lost.
I am officially sold on the Ohio State Buckeyes as a Final Four contender.
For weeks, you could easily categorize me as a “hater.” I watched as Ohio State rolled over a schedule that only Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon could respect. There was no holiday tournament to speak of. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge drew the Buckeyes a weak Maryland team (not their fault). In a normal year, Marquette would be considered a top flight game. But this year’s version of Buzz Williams’ club leaves a lot to be desired. Notre Dame ranks as Ohio State’s best win, but in that game, a miracle eight-point, final-minute collapse of epic proportions by the Irish handed the Bucks a win they shouldn’t have gotten. While Notre Dame (10-5) has beaten Duke, they have also lost to the likes of Indiana State, North Dakota State, and needed overtime to beat Canisius.
During that ND/Ohio State game, I entered the dark side with some of my Twitter followers who took me to task for calling out Ohio State as a team that will get theirs once they played “real competition.” I believe “talk to me after January 7″ was something I uttered.
I looked more than right for about 33 minutes last night as Michigan State, the preseason No. 1 team in the country, put a complete dismantle job on Thad Matta’s club in East Lansing. The same concerns that I had with Ohio State coming in were completely magnified. They had trouble scoring in the half court. There is nobody in the low post to throw the ball down to. When the Buckeyes needed a bucket, who would step up? Deshaun Thomas isn’t around anymore to bail them out. Trailing by 17 with 7:14 to play, Ohio State looked like a shell-shocked, exposed group.
That’s when they leaned on their calling card: Swarming defense. It changed everything not only in just the game, but for my perception of them as well.
Michigan State began to play not to lose while the Buckeyes went all-in with their pressure. You won’t find a trio of better perimeter defenders than Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, and Sam Thompson. Amir Williams was a shot-blocking, rebounding, garbage collecting mad man, and Freshman Marc Loving took a huge step forward. Matta trusted these five for the final seven-plus minutes, plus overtime, keeping Senior Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross — his two leading scorers — on the bench. Every Spartan offense possession down the stretch was hurried. They would run the shot clock all the way down and force up a bad shot or turn the ball over. If only Urban Meyer’s defense could perform like this…
The 20-3 run over the last seven-plus minutes that forced overtime was something nobody who watched the first 33 minutes could have possibly believed. Yes, I know they ended up losing a heartbreaker; I know moral victories are for losers. But of you are a fan of this team, you have to have left this game with a good feeling. Even their biggest doubters, including yours truly, have to have changed their tune. The crow is tasting extra sweet this morning as I am officially sold on this team as a Final Four-caliber club.
You cannot teach the experience and savvy of what Aaron Craft is bringing to the table. Last night, he made several high basketball IQ plays that made you shake your head in amazement, including the inbounds basket off of the behind of MSU’s Adrien Payne with the Bucks down three under a minute to play. The team defense was suffocating during the comeback. Scott’s hands always seem to be in the passing lanes. Williams bodied up in the post. Thompson’s length and athleticism gave fits to whomever he was guarding. But it may be the emergence of Loving that was the biggest story. Marc could be the x-factor that Matta has been searching for.
Last season, it was no coincidence that Ohio State was at their best when Ross was producing instant offense coming off of the bench. Loving has the look to be that guy this season. Ross and Smith may not have been big contributors last night, but they will both be just fine. The biggest issue for Matta will be keeping Williams on the floor. He hasn’t found any other big man he can trust coming off the bench (they really miss Evan Ravenel) and like last year are playing essentially four perimeter players with Williams.
I saw what Matta has been talking about all year. As long as this team guards like it did during that amazing run down the stretch last night, they can beat anyone. There is no shame in losing to the Spartans in East Lansing. It will be interesting to see how they bounce back this weekend against another quality team, the 20th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. But last night made a believer out of me.
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)