This Ohio State team is scary in a lot of ways, and I mean that as a compliment and a criticism.
They can do almost everything, but it’s not always clear when they’ll do anything.
Some of the feelings that arise from watching this group of Buckeyes are no doubt a matter of perception, leftovers from a high preseason ranking and even the residual effect of last year’s excellent but disappointing team.
Nothing this squad has done has been in a vacuum. Expectations color every game. They made midseason losses to inferior talent from Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois seem intolerable but left room for an exhilarating comeback win at Michigan State to close the regular season and win the Big Ten title many thought they’d stroll to.
Ohio State can be misleading at both ends of the floor. Defensively they have very good numbers, but they also are prone to curious lapses. Length and athleticism sometimes allow them to overcome mistakes, but communication isn’t always perfect. Sometimes you wonder if they’ve ever heard of a boxout, but they have a lot of guys who can go out of their area to snag a board when they need it, too.
On the offensive end, they have a great low post scorer but no consistent outside shooter to form the classic inside-out game their offense is set up to be. Sure, they can hit threes, but it’s not a reliable part of the arsenal. That means they have to manufacture points despite not playing a system that is really set up to do that. Fortunately, they have a true hybrid scorer at the four position in Deshaun Thomas. A player once called the next LeBron James early in his Indiana high school career, Thomas sometimes gets lost in the talk about Jared Sullinger’s prodigious power inside and Aaron Craft’s pesky play on the perimeter, but he is a bona fide NBA prospect himself. Long-armed, quick-jumping and a little enigmatic, Thomas has a natural scoring touch inside 15 feet but plenty of range to step outside and hit from beyond the arc. When we talk about “glue guys”, we generally mean the ones who hold things together on the defensive end (where it should be noted Thomas has improved through the course of this season), but that’s what this guy has done of the Ohio State offense. He fills in the gaps, scoring from wherever and often whenever he is needed to get the Buckeyes over the top.
There’s something disconcerting about watching a team that does a lot of things well but doesn’t seem to do the same ones every night. Yet the former is really more important than the latter, especially at this time of year. It just tends to make things a little wilder along the way.
I think we’re also seeing the intermixing of talent and youth, two sometimes combustible partners. Last year’s team had already paid its dues. It was not only full of great shooters – including guys like Jon Diebler and David Lighty, who improved significantly through the course of their careers – but also guys who had been around the block and learned the importance of doing all the dirty work every night. That made it easy for Sullinger, Craft and occasionally Thomas to slide into defined roles as freshmen. All they had to do was a thing or two they naturally did well – score and rebound in the paint, smother an opposing guard or fill it up from wherever there’s an opening – and let the other guys worry about the hard stuff. This year has been much different for those guys with their names alone on the marquee, and it took a while for all of them to figure out how to adjust. There were some ugly moments that even now are tough to forget when projecting where this team will end up with two weekends of season left to play.
These Buckeyes are still not always aesthetically pleasing, but they’ve learned how to get the job done by whatever means necessary. How far will that take them? We won’t have to wait much longer to find out.
Syracuse and its vaunted 2-3 zone await in the regional final on Saturday. The Buckeyes and Orange will play for the right to go to the Final Four. Ohio State lacks the consistent three-point shooters to threaten such a defense in the most obvious way, but the Buckeyes have picked up ways to get inside and find openings that weren’t there earlier in the season.
And on top of that, for as much talk as there is about the times they don’t do everything they’re supposed to, there also remains the possibility someone – long lost senior William Buford, perhaps? – shows up with something added for one night and makes them that much more dangerous. It’s part of the beauty of sports, of March Madness in particular.
Let’s see what happens…