One loss….And I am officially sold

Aaron Craft

Photo 

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)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Ohio State in the final four TD I don’t know man I think you not only have a sore throat but a case of the Scarlet and grey fever! I’m not saying it’s not possible I just think it’s highly unlikely.

  • Natedawg86

    I think it is possible, but anything is possible in the tourney. They have to play good D, make free throws, and not turn the ball over.

  • mgbode

    and someone needs to emerge as their Conley/Turner late-game goto guy. It was Craft at the end of regulation (but, we saw last March that is not his best role) and Loving attempted it in OT (he might just need more time).

  • Natedawg86

    Williams needs to play tougher, and smith and ross were on the bench. I think Ross will be able to fill that role, but like they said last night, each game it can be anyone’s night. I think that makes them more dangerous…if they can find that guy early enough.

  • @TheDeePagel

    I agree with you but I have one nagging thought in my head about it, and to qualify where I am coming from, I consider myself a Buckeye basketball junkie, even more of a fan of Buckeye basketball and Coach Matta than I am Buckeye football.

    My pessimistic thought is that both times this year where the Buckeyes have been at their best is after an awful/mediocre first 30-35 minutes. The ND game and last night being the examples. In those final 5 minutes of each game they looked good enough to be the best team in the country.

    The problem is doing this leaves you in most cases with a loss, with the exception being ND. You can even extend this to last season’s Elite 8 loss to Wichita State where they did basically the same thing….a poor performance turned into fantastic play once panic and desperation took over.

    While on one hand it’s a great attribute for a team, the challenge and frustrating thing is how to do you get them to play like that in the beginning and close out games early.

    We saw them do it at home against Michigan last season at home, but then the Wolverines almost came back and beat us.

    Playing like that takes a TON of energy, and it’s hard for a team to do that for 40 minutes, especially with all the time-outs and TV breaks that disrupts momentum…..but if Matta can find the recipe to get his team to play like this for the majority of the game, and not just spurts at the end when a loss looks like a lock…….then yes….I agree this team will not only be in the Final Four….but would have a chance to end as champions.

  • @TheDeePagel

    Loving will most definitely be that guy later…..and the good news is the talent is absolutely stocked piled on the shelf for what is coming in.

    Plus we haven’t even seen Kam Williams this season.

    This current version of the team lacks true scorers, but Craft and Scott make up for that with the perimeter play.

    But the future looks really, really, bright to ease the blow after Craft leaves.

  • @TheDeePagel

    We will have a say in March…..because what is the one thing that coaches always talk about that carries a team in the Tourney?

    Backcourt play.

    And this year’s team has a terrific backcourt.

  • @TheDeePagel

    Loving on the floor with Ross later in the year?

    Craft, Scott, Loving, Ross and Williams with Slam and Lenzelle when you need them maybe the 7 man tourney-rotation.

    And Loving after experiencing B1G play will be ready to roll big time come March.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Oh I agree that’s why I attempted to stay away from speaking in certainty. I know in the past when I’ve thought of them highly they let me down so maybe this way with lower expectations they’ll surprise me.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The Browns are going to think you are cheating on them if this continues! ;-)

  • @TheDeePagel

    Ha!

    Plenty of pom-poms to go around.

  • WFNYKirk

    3 recruits in the Top 25 with Russell, Tate, and Bates-Diop? You’re darn right!

  • @TheDeePagel

    And 2015 already off to a great start too.

  • WFNYKirk

    They just have to avoid that offensive stagnation and push the ball in transition as much as possible.

  • @TheDeePagel

    Would like to see Craft start games with penetration and continue that all game. It seems he saves it for the end. But the kid is human, and he spends so much energy defensively, he probably can’t do both.

    But right when you say “can’t” with that kid…

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That Diop isn’t related to former great Cavaliers Desagana is he?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You gotta penetrate and go strong to the hole!!!!

  • saggy

    backcourt play and COACHING. Bucks have both in spades.

  • @TheDeePagel

    The Williams needs to play tougher thing is a two-year old story now….

    The sad thing about it is the fact that he IS playing tougher….this could be just about the best version of him we get.

    But he still…

    1. Allows opponents to post him up too deep in the lane, and…

    2. Brings the ball down to his thighs/knees after he catches or grabs an offensive board.

    The book is out on him about #2 and it’s like blood in the water to quicker guards that crash down.

  • @TheDeePagel

    The other thing about Craft is this…

    So many Buckeyes have learned tricks of the trade on defense from him….Scott is the brightest example on how to anticipate plays, move feet on defense, and most importantly when to reach in and slap the ball away.

    We also see a bunch of other players also get into the act with stripping the ball on drives, tipping passes, etc..

    If Craft was never here, would Scott be THIS good defensively? I say no….still solid, but not as good. Same with Thompson and Smith.

    Heck, even Amir is now having some success at stripping his man….he did it twice to Payne last night without getting called for a foul.

    Point is, it would be nice for Craft to come on board as an assistant coach one day…..doubtful because of his future with his grades, but that would be a nice thing to keep passing on to generations of future Buckeyes.

  • @TheDeePagel

    That’s what Sandusky said!!!!

    Too soon….?

  • @TheDeePagel

    I have the feeling I’ll be blasted for that one….but it’s a joke.