Aaron Craft is regarded around the country as that get-under-your-skin type guy on the opposing team you just love to hate. He seems to be more athletic than he should, he always strikes you as faster handed than otherwise should be possible, and always seems to find the open guy or contribute to a defining play on either side of the ball late in the game that just leaves you unable to do much except curse out loud. If Sunday was any indicator, he's about to get a whole lot more grating.
Behind a career high 20 points to go along with five three pointers and seven assists from Craft, the Ohio State Buckeyes shook off their second slow start in as many contests to get past Albany, 82 to 60. Deshaun Thomas added to the effort, scoring 19 points despite a sluggish start in his own right. Lenzelle Smith also showed signs that his strong conclusion to the 2011-2012 season may be a theatrical trailer for big future offensive things to come chipping in 18 points of his own. Mike Black, on the heels of a steady first half, led the way for Albany with 20 points.
Not unlike their football counterparts, the Buckeyes struggled through an uneven early defensive start in which Albany was having their way on the rebounding glass on both sides of the ball. The Buckeyes' offensive game seemed lethargic in transition as a result as well. But after a 4:45 to go in the first half time out (in which Thad Matta appeared to give those in the Ohio State huddle a real tongue lashing), the Buckeyes went on a massive 17-2 run to end the first half and never trailed again.
Part of the slow start seemed to be the biproduct of an almost lethargy gripping the Buckeyes' starting five and first two off the bench. Whether the team had been looking past Albany by virtue of not playing an opponent of Marquette's caliber first or were just experiencing some kind of hangover after the false start and ultimate cancellation of the Carrier Classic, it's tough to say. The Buckeyes gave up four quick team fouls to start and though they forced seven turnovers in just over eight minutes against the Danes, Albany's respective offensive struggles didn't seem because of the usual Aaron Craft/Lenzelle Smith defensive forcefield.
After several particularly lackluster defensive sequences (including one where Black seemingly penetrated at will and Amir Williams failed to rotate to the ball while Deshaun Thomas looked timid about potentially drawing a second foul), it took the second of numerous Aaron Craft three pointers to signify any signs of life in the Buckeyes' lineup and help re-jump Ohio State's tenacity on both sides of the ball.
On the heels of a 9-3 Albany run, Sam Thompson would contribute in the way he and maybe only Amir Williams otherwise can, with a death defying leaping swat. Albany would gun back to a 23-22 lead before the illustrious 4:45 timeout would change the entire complexion of the game.
You had to think that Matta was in particular laying into senior starter Evan Ravenel, who looked disinterested offensively and borderline lazy on the defensive glass. After an Albany forward drove right past a bored looking Ravenel, the forward was sequestered to the pine and Amir Williams was inserted into the lineup to try and reignite the interior D. The lack of urgency on defense across the board was mind boggling and it seemed as though Thad Matta, Jeff Boals and co. agreed whole heartedly.
Following some early lack of focus from LaQuinton Ross (which may have contributed to his decline from starter in the exhibition game against Walsh to role player in this one), Ross would show some hustle on retrieving a long ricochet Deshaun Thomas miss only to feed the rock back to the Buckeyes' star forward who would stroke a three en route to 19 points on the afternoon.
Thomas and Matta alike would admit after the game that just two short seasons ago, after a start like the one Thomas experienced (during which at one point he was something to the effect of 1-for-7), he probably would've pouted and never been able to get back into the offensive flow of the game. Instead, Thomas authoritatively and with a renewed sense of confident rediscovered his offensive prowess, and the entire Buckeyes offense opened up as he did so.
The real catalyst after the timeout perhaps came when the Buckeyes completely paralyzed the Albany offensive set and forced their first five second violation of the year. A Deshaun Thomas and one on the other end of the court opened the lead back up to 28-23 and another three from the Tank/Microwave/whatever you want to call him helped the Buckeyes pull away for good.
In lieu of their end of first half explosion, the second half felt almost procedural and served as more of a glorified scrimmage in which the Buckeyes were able to work on set plays, defense, and offensive execution. Lenzelle Smith Jr in particular showed an explosive side we only saw sparingly in 2011-2012 during the second set including a ferocious dunk that was bogusly deemed a technical for hanging on the rim (Smith had a player underneath him and would've fallen right on top of the guy had he not pulled himself up in the manner the officials deemed uncouth).
Additionally, Craft added a couple more threes to cap his total at five for the day as well as show that all the hard work he did in the off season in the gym did in fact pay off. Few guys would put the intense time and effort in to evolving their offensive games the way Craft has. From the moment he stepped on campus to where he's at now. It's almost mind boggling how far he's come.
Another impressive figure was Deshaun Thomas having scored 16 of the Buckeyes' previous 27 points at one stretch as they continued to open up their second half lead. Thomas and Craft were able to rest comfortably almost the entire final five minutes because of not only the margin, but how efficient they'd been in the previous 20 minutes or so.
With the lead up to 25, Trey McDonald was even able to see some time in the game becoming the 7th Buckeye to score on the afternoon in the process. Albany's head coach Will Brown would humorously say in the post game, "they've got McDonalds All-Americans coming off the bench. My guys eat at McDonalds."
Besides the sluggish start, perhaps the only other aspect the Buckeyes will be well served to fine tune will be the involvement of their two options in the middle. Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel combined for a paltry 0 points on just one attempt and only 6 rebounds with zero blocks. When the starting small forward is out blocking your de facto centers, you may have some issues that'll need coaching up. Williams, if you recall, had some balls squirt out of his hand during the exhibition against Walsh and may just need to continue working on his strength in the weight room.
The 1-0 Ohio State Buckeyes will have a little less than a week to work on starting a bit quicker before traveling to play Rhode Island on a neutral court next Saturday in the Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic tournament at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.
|SMITH JR.,LENZELLE *||18||1||5||1||2||8||11||2||2||29||27|
|* indicates starter|
|** +/- data is estimated due to inconsistent substitution data|