Created on Wednesday, 20 March 2013 Written by TIM BIELIK tbielik@MorningJournal.com @Bielik_Tim,writer
About a month ago when Ohio State lost badly at Wisconsin, I, like most people, wrote the Buckeyes off as a mediocre team that wouldn’t make much of an impact in the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta reacts as he directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin in the championship of the Big Ten tournament Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
All that’s happened since then is the Buckeyes winning their third Big Ten Tournament Championship in the last four years on Sunday and earning a No. 2 seed for the second straight year in the tournament, with one of the easier roads to the Final Four.
Oh, what a difference one month makes.
Up until the last few weeks, Thad Matta’s Buckeyes looked like a very limited basketball team with plenty of talent, but not that high of a ceiling. Now they are suddenly among the most dangerous teams in college basketball with wins over Michigan State and at Indiana, then winning the conference championship in a year where the conference is far and away the toughest in the country.
The biggest reason for the turnaround?
Look no further than Matta.
The Buckeyes’ coach has long been thought of only as a guy who could recruit. Granted he has brought in some outstanding basketball players in his tenure in Columbus including Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. But his biggest criticism is that he has only gotten so much out of his players and has never won “the big one.”
The critics only have to look as far as the last four weeks to find out that Matta can coach and that this year’s Buckeyes are by far his best work as a head coach.
He’s only had one consistent scoring option in Deshaun Thomas, who still has a bit of a shoot first, shoot second and never ask questions mentality on offense. The Buckeyes have also been very inconsistent defensively, looking stellar at times but other times having lapse after lapse.
Whether it be his team coming together at the right time or him pushing all the right buttons at the right time, Ohio State has found its groove and is playing its best basketball at the best time.
One month after Wisconsin cleaned the Buckeyes’ clocks to the tune of a 71-49 blowout in the Kohl Center, a place OSU has historically had bad afternoons. The Buckeyes only scored one more point 28 days later in the rematch in the Big Ten Championship, but shut down the Badgers to complete one of the most impressive runs of the college basketball season where the Buckeyes have won nine games in a row and never let an opponent score more than 60 points.
The last four weeks for the Buckeyes have truly been as stunning a turnaround as any in the college game simply because Aaron Craft, well known as a defensive specialist, has suddenly been a game-breaker on offense as well. He has had great offensive performances, especially against Michigan State on Saturday where he had 20 points and nine assists in the Buckeyes’ 61-58 win.
Matta has also gotten big performances from his two young starting wing players in Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., the latter of whom only gets double figures once every three or four games but still plays solid defense. Even Thompson, referred to as “Slam” Thompson because of his powerful dunks, has developed a jump shot and is now a 40 percent three-point shooter.
Notorious for only playing about six or seven players a night in the past, Matta has had a consistent eight-man rotation led by Shannon Scott and LaQuinton Ross who have been great in the last month off the bench.
But it’s not like Ohio State’s roster was full of bad players coming in.
Most of these players were highly-touted coming out of high school, but have waited their turn playing behind more experienced players like Sullinger and William Buford a year ago. Those guys have played in a Final Four where they fell in a heartbreaker to Kansas a year ago.
It just took this group a lot longer than most to find its identity.
Thanks to Matta who is proving that he is one of the better coaches in big-time college basketball, Ohio State has found its identity in its defense.
And with that, they have gone from afterthought to title contenders in 28 short days.
Turnover on downs
Is there any more intriguing matchup from an irritation standpoint in this weekend’s first, excuse me, “second” round of the NCAA Tournament than Wisconsin and Ole Miss?
The matchup pits Bo Ryan, who may be among the most grating personalities in coaching in college basketball as evidenced by last Sunday’s halftime TV interview, against Marshall Henderson who may be the most annoying yet amusing player in the game.
Henderson loves to be the center of attention whether it be shooting an average of 11 three-point attempts per game or doing the Florida Gators’ chomp celebration in the middle of the Rebels’ SEC Championship win on Sunday.
Only one can win, and the other will likely have a very entertaining meltdown afterwards. It would only be fitting...