I started formulating this column in my mind last week.
At the time, I was totally prepared to defile the Ohio State Basketball team with my words. Lethargic, uninspired home losses against Michigan State and Wisconsin were painful enough. But losing at Michigan (and, in essence, affording that crusty-faced Zack Novak a share of the Big Ten title) was pure torture.
The problems with this team seemed to be many, and to run deep. Divided leadership. Zero three-point threats. The offense disappearing for halves at a time. Yes, as the Big Ten tourney loomed, I was fully prepared to give this squad a literary punch to the neck.
Then, of course, things got weird.
Instead of going into the Izzone and getting punished like tardy seventh-graders, the Buckeyes came in looking like the Thad Matta teams of old. They played great team D. Their elder statesmen (Buford, Ravenel) exhibited amazing leadership in cuing a comeback. And, for the most part, the offense got contributions from the right guys (Sully, Buford, DESHAUN).
Now, instead of hoping this sluggish bunch of square pegs could garner a four-seed for the NCAA tourney (on rep alone), we’re sitting comfortably in a two-slot, riding the high of a huge confidence boost. Granted, confusion remains. But the win at Michigan State makes us rest easier as conference tourney play starts today.
Here’s a look at every team in the B1G field, with everything you need to know boiled into one sentence:
#12 Penn State - Matched up against Indiana (in Indiana); might quit at halftime.
#11 Nebraska - There are intramural teams at Ohio State that could beat these Huskers.
#10 Minnesota - Has the coach and the athletes to make waves.
#9 Illinois - Bruce Weber is a lame duck, could get run by a plucky Iowa squad.
#8 Iowa - Plucky.
#7 Northwestern - Star player looks like a 15 year-old trombone player.
#6 Purdue - Robbie Hummel and a bunch of college cafeteria workers.
#5 Indiana - Home court advantage + Senor Zeller could = finals.
#4 Wisconsin - Zzzzzzzzzzzzz (inability to perform on big stage = one and done).
#3 Ohio State - Analyzed below.
#2 Michigan - Trey Burke makes an otherwise mediocre team legit.
#1 Michigan State - Deep, talented, and led by the whiniest dude this side of Tim Duncan.
As I glance at the tourney brackets, a few things stand out. First, Indiana, with its recharged fan base and infusion of new talent could literally win the whole thing. They’ve got a gimme’ today against PSU and a very beatable Wisconsin team in round two (UW has three home losses this year, a great indication of a downturn in Madison and a stat that’s got every Badger fan seeing red.) Then, since every game is played in Indianapolis, they could very easily upset the #1-seeded MSU, just as they did nine days ago in Bloomington.
And second, I love that I’m more comfortable with Ohio State’s positioning as a three seed than I would be if they were the one. Michigan State could likely face Illinois and Indiana in two days, two teams that handed them losses during the regular season. If the Spartans are going to reach the finals on Sunday, they’re going to earn it, plain and simple.
OSU, on the other hand, is in a bracket with five VERY beatable teams. In round two they’ll likely get Purdue, a shell of its former E’twaun/JaJuan self. That’s a win. In round three they’ll either get Northwestern(beat ‘em by 30), Minnesota (handled them easily), or Michigan (the weakest #2 in the history of #2’s.) Not saying it’ll be a day at the beach, but you have to breathe easier knowing that Tom Izzo, Cody Zeller, and Brandon “43 points” Paul are in the other bracket. That said, Ohio State should be playing Sunday in the championship game, and they will if a few things occur:
1. Sully Needs to Get Calls- It’s no secret that Jared Sullinger has been getting LESS respect as a sophomore than he got as a freshman. His numbers are down and his confidence often seems to drag. The fact is, Sully has been getting to the foul line about 20% less this year than last (discussed yesterday in this Columbus Dispatch article) and it’s taken it’s toll. Normally when a bruiser like Sullinger gets mugged in the paint, he reaps the reward at the free throw line. The fact that he hasn’t (as much) has clearly burrowed its way into Sullinger’s psyche, and has cost the Buckeyes wins.
2. Help Defense in the Paint - I mentioned this in a recent blog post, but it bears repeating. One way defenses have been taking away Sullinger is by floating help defense over to swat at him when he initiates a move in the post. In the past, Sully could combat that strategy by alertly kicking the ball to Jon Diebler, who basically had a condo on the other side of the three-point line. Now, teams know the Buckeyes can’t hit three’s, so they’re content to gang-bang Sullinger all day. Whether or not a team has a threat like Diebler, Thad Matta needs to send some boys of his own in to help in the post. Why? Because, plainly, Sullinger cannot defend. At least not at the level he needs to. Last season, Sullinger’s post defense could be overlooked because senior center Dallas “Gorilla Arms” Lauderdale was there to punish fools. This year, it’s basically Sully on an island, and he has failed repeatedly.
3. DESHAUN needs to focus - As I’ve said before, DESHAUN Thomas is DESHAUN (instead of plain old Deshaun) because any time he gets involved, he has the ability to change the tide of the game (which is why I yell DESHAUN! every time he gets his hands on the rock). Unfortunately, DESHAUN usually plays the game on DESHAUN time, which means half the time he’ll be skying for rebounds and droppoing easy J’s, and the other half he’ll be picking dandelions and daydreaming about his iPad. Assuming teams are battering Sully to a oozing pulp (they will be), the Buckeyes have two scorers - William Buford and DESHAUN. If DESHAUN decides to only play half a game, OSU may as well quit now. They may sneak by Nebraska and Penn State that way, but Michigan State will bury them.
4. Buford Must Ride Momentum - I couldn’t have been happier Sunday when William Buford suplexed Michigan State with his last second jumper. Mainly because OSU won the game and Michigan State looked like a bunch of dicks in front of their home crowd. But also because even as the third all-time scorer in Ohio State history, Buford has been maligned more than he’s been celebrated. His abysmal outing last March against UK (2-16 from the field, missed the final shot) was probably enough, but then he disappeared in several games this season as well, prompting fans and media alike to question is leadership ability and mental toughness. However, facing OSU’s equivalent of judgement day Sunday in East Lansing, Buford woke up to the tune of 25 points, including that last second dagger. With opponents’ increased attention on Sullinger and DESHAUN’s propensity for forgetting what time the game starts, Buford HAS to score. He just has to. If he doesn’t, the Buckeyes exit early. This weekend, and in the Big Dance.
Prediction: Ohio State takes advantage of an easy road to the finals on Sunday, then gets knocked flat by a deeper and more mature Michigan State squad looking for revenge. OSU secures a 2 seed in the Dance, Michigan State lands a 1.