20 February 2012
A Tale of Two (or Three, or Six) Teams
There’s comfort in clarity.
The Buckeyes are a talented basketball team. That much is clear. They showcased their massive potential in November’s rout of Duke. But since that night, there’s been a cloud following the program. The Buckeyes lost at Illinois, Indiana and Kansas. Last week, Michigan State embarrassed Ohio State in Columbus. Saturday night, the wheels came off.
The Buckeyes traveled to Ann Arbor and lost to That Team Up North for the first time in seven games. Losing to Michigan is always painful. That’s especially true in a year when the Wolverines already own bragging rights in football. But the harshness of Saturday’s loss was only sharpened by the identity of the opponent. The pain runs even deeper than rivalry.
What made Saturday night so painful was the realization that the Buckeyes simply aren’t the team we thought they were. That reality has lingered for months, but in this blogger’s eyes, it was crystal clear for the first time this season on Saturday.
The pieces are all there for Ohio State. Despite any perceived shortcomings in his game day decisions, it’s irrefutable that Thad Matta is an elite recruiter. Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Deshaun Thomas, and Aaron Craft are all very good players. The bench is packed with blue-chip talent. But a collection of talented individuals is not a team.
In fact, it’s impossible to determine how many “teams” the Buckeyes have.
It could be two: the starters and the bench (more accurately, “oil” and “water”).
It could be three: one for the bench, one for Craft, Sullinger, Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith, and one for Buford and his ego.
It could even be six: one each for the five starters and, yes, one for the bench.
As problems go, this one is crippling. That’s why these losses have been so revealing. It’s true that UConn won it all last year after losing nine times during the regular season. But using the Huskies as an example for why Buckeye fans shouldn’t panic is badly misguided. UConn had problems, but coalesced as a team at the right time. The Buckeyes aren’t on the same trajectory.
Nowhere are these problems more evident than when the Buckeyes are running their offense. Whatever system Thad Matta is trying to run (it’s hard to tell), the Buckeyes are either incapable or unwilling to commit to it. The best parallel for Ohio State’s organization on offense is that of a pick-up game. There’s no structure. Sullinger, Thomas, and Buford play for themselves (it actually looks like it causes Buford and Thomas physical pain when they have to pass up a shot).
The Buckeyes are playing a selfish, disorganized brand of basketball. That won’t fly in March. Barring a major shift in team chemistry and attitude, this team’s legacy will be wasted potential. That’s a shame.
Michigan had a monstrous recruiting weekend, hauling in six four-star commitments on Saturday, including three offensive linemen. None were surprising; these recruits were expected to commit to the Wolverines. That doesn’t diminish the day Michigan had. It’s increasingly common for Buckeye fans to belittle Brady Hoke as a coach and a recruiter. That’s a mistake. He’s very good at both. Thankfully, it’s not a mistake Urban Meyer is making. He’s voiced his respect for Hoke on several occasions. There’s room for both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines at the top of college football. The Rivalry is better for it.
Thankfully, the regular season in college basketball has little bearing on the postseason. However, the nature of the Buckeyes problems indicates that, in the pressure-cooker of March Madness, this team will fold. But that result isn’t inevitable. The Buckeyes need a leader. Craft, Sullinger and Buford are all capable of filling that role. If one of them steps up, this team can right the course.
Something I never thought I’d be writing when this season started: Jared Sullinger would be making a huge mistake declaring for the NBA draft this year. Michigan and Michigan State have bullied him in the paint in back-to-back weeks. Whether losing weight was a mistake or he’s just gone soft, he can’t expect to contribute in the NBA given his current quality of play.
The Buckeyes’ commitments for next year’s recruiting class continue to roll in. Eli Woodard committed to Ohio State Thursday. He’s the second cornerback to commit to the Buckeyes for this class, following Cam Burrows. He’ll likely get company this week. Stay tuned…
The Week Ahead
Monday (Women’s Basketball): Ohio State @ Penn State. 7 p.m. on ESPN2.
Tuesday (Men’s Basketball): Illinois @ Ohio State. 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Thursday (Women’s Basketball): Minnesota @ Ohio State. 8 p.m. on BTN.
Sunday (Men’s Basketball): Wisconsin @ Ohio State. 4 p.m. on CBS.
Sunday (Women’s Basketball): Ohio State @ Nebraska. 4 p.m. on BTN. Last game of the regular season.
The blame for the Buckeyes’ disappointing basketball season doesn’t belong to Thad Matta. Or Jared Sullinger. Or even William Buford. The blame lies with the whole team, those three included.
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