Basing your analyses of the Big Ten basketball season on anything other than pure randomness has seemingly been a fruitless task. There’s no better example of this than the current campaign for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Let’s recap just a bit: Two losses to Penn State, the first two in Thad Matta’s tenure; wins at Iowa and Wisconsin, two of the biggest threats in the upcoming Big Ten conference tournament; losses at Lincoln, Minneapolis, and Bloomington. The Buckeyes won twice to open the conference slate and followed that with losses in five of six, followed by wins in six out of seven, then inexplicable losses at Penn State and Indiana. Fans of the scarlet and gray have surely been up and down the Columbus roundball roller coaster. Then, Sunday happened.
On Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr.’s Senior Day, a tall task stood in the way of a happy ending in the Michigan State Spartans. The two had squared off in a top-five showdown earlier in the season with Ohio State putting forth a miracle sprint to force overtime only to fall just short. This time, the Buckeyes used their vice-like defende to hold on for the win despite stalled offense and a parade of missed free throws in crunch time. The 69-67 Buckeye win kept the hopes of a Big Ten tourney first-round bye alive (these were ultimately dashed by the Huskers), but more importantly, it was a positive finish to a whirlwind year, sending out the seniors properly.
The most refreshing aspect of this game was Ohio State’s increased ability for moments of this game to attack the basket. The senior duo of Craft and Smith Jr. were each able to find some cracks in the defense with dribble penetration, and the passing was much crisper than usual. LaQuinton Ross, who would finish with a team-high 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, put up a lot of shots in the paint and flashed that skill in using touch around the rim. Craft was the only other Buckeye to reach double digit scoring with 12 points, but the Buckeyes shot 47%, spurning most of the three-point looks they had (4-for-10 in the game) and instead took it to the hoop or pulled up from mid-range to give themselves a better chance at knocking a shot down.
Defensively, the biggest problem was Michigan State’s fastbreak offense. When OSU turned it over, the Spartans were pushing it up the court and scoring (16-8 edge in fastbreak points). In fact, in some cases, Sparty was getting the ball up the court off made baskets even more effectively than off turnovers or missed shots. Sparty just kept knocking down key demoralizing three pointers throughout the game that just gave off the vibe that it was not the Buckeyes’ day (10-for-20 on the day). In a three-minute span early in the second half, Michigan State used a 12-0 run to turn a five-point hole into a seven-point lead. Adreian Payne was the star for Michigan State, scoring a game-high 23 on 9-of-19 from the floor to go with eight rebounds and two blocks as he scored both inside and out, showing a much better motor than in some past matchups. Payne got the scarlet and gray frontcourt into serious foul trouble as Trey McDonald picked up his fourth personal foul early in the second half with Amir Williams already at three personals. Outside of the frontcourt foul issues, however, Ohio State enjoyed a drastic advantage at the foul line, taking 31 free throws compared to just 10 for Michigan State.
It was Ohio State’s foul shooting, though, that couldn’t ice this game and made for the thrilling finish. They were 19-of-31 on the game, but the Bucks shot 2-for-8 in the final minutes of the game. Without a true knock-down, go-to foul shooter (Smith Jr. and Loving are probably their two best though they didn’t shoot any), the Buckeyes had to really gut this one out on the other end of the floor. Nothing easy. In this wacky college basketball season, that’s one thing I can confidently say the Buckeyes have made sure of. That’s a double-meaning, of course. Their defense makes opponents work tirelessly to score in the halfcourt, but their other shortcomings as a team ensure that there aren’t many comfortable wins.
The end sequence of this game was such a perfect snapshot of what embodies Aaron Craft and what has defined Ohio State basketball this season. It seemed like the scoreboard was frozen at dual 67s for an eternity. Just two points were scored in the final 3:52 of the game after a LaQuinton Ross field goal, the last of the game, tied things up. The last points for the Spartans came with 4:30 to play on a Branden Dawson bucket. The final four minutes from there can only be best described as messy, glorious, bare-knuckle boxing on the defensive end. The Buckeyes snatched 10 steals on the day, including four for Craft, who became the conference’s all-time steals leader after tying the record last week. Michigan State converted 16 turnovers in all as outside of the transition points allowed, the Buckeye D was iron-clad. In their final seven possessions, MSU was 0-for-4 shooting and committed three turnovers. Craft was at the heart of it all, diving for a loose ball inside the final minute and getting the timeout while bloodying his elbow. He also stayed in front of Denzell Valentine as he coughed it up as he fell to the floor following an attempted push-off. In the final mad dash up the court for Sparty down two, it was Craft who swam into Gary Harris’s airspace, contorting himself to place his hand right into Harris’s chin and between his shooting hands to make him feel the pressure.
Heading into the Big Ten tournament, I can’t remember such a wide open race as to who will get to Sunday. Michigan and Wisconsin (as the top two seeds) would certainly be the favorites, but both have shown their warts, and more importantly, the teams at the bottom have shown the ability to pull off big wins. If the Big Ten goes chalk, I’d be stunned. Michigan State was considered the best team in the conference for most of the season, but injuries killed them down the stretch. Ohio State when on can run the table from a Thursday slot and go 4-for-4. I’d say the same thing about Iowa. Everyone is playing for seeding, and many are playing for tournament bids, needing one or two wins (looking at you Nebraska and Minnesota). Regardless of how it shakes out, it should be a riveting week of basketball in Indianapolis.