Ohio State Basketball: The missing links

Good job, good effort, not enough. - Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeyes two losses in their 2013 non-conference slate highlighted the shortcomings on an otherwise very good basketball team. Can Thad Matta and the Buckeyes fill the gaps before a tough Big Ten slate begins?

Ohio State has two losses this year in basketball. After going undefeated in football, it may seem difficult for Buckeye fans to acclimate to not winning an athletic contest in a major sport. But such is the nature of sports in general. Sometimes you can beat your rival(s) on the field and any other comer, and sometimes you can't.

Unfortunately, the Buckeyes will not be able to claim an undefeated season in both money sports this year. While it is difficult to fathom doing this in football, it is nigh impossible to do on the basketball court unless your team possesses enough talent to be able to send your entire starting lineup to the NBA after one year in college. And even when you have that talent, you still sometimes lose to another historic rival on their home floor on a crazy, last second three.

No one thought this Buckeye team was going to go undefeated, even the most optimistic optimists. Going to Cameron Indoor to take on Duke was probably a loss before the game even started. And the prospect of beating an extremely talented Kansas squad, even on your own floor, was probably too close to call before, and ended up in the loss column, unexpectedly or not. The rest of the non-con slate wasn't too bad, and resulted in only wins, but the failings in Ohio State's two marquee games this year spoke volumes louder than those victories.

With a lone out of conference game against the mighty Chicago State Second City-ers* before Big Ten play begins, the Buckeyes probably have more questions than they do answers for the first time in a few seasons. I'm not ready to bury this team by any means. But before the grind of the conference schedule begins, Ohio State is facing more of an uphill battle than they're used to.

*I'm guessing this is their nickname. I could be wrong.

I was chatting with a friend about the Kansas game, and he made a very good point about Thad Matta and this year's Buckeye squad. He likened Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and company to something Thad Matta "bought" on Amazon.com. On the website, it looked like exactly what you wanted, and what you needed. But once you received the package in the mail, you found it lacking a certain something, and instead of exchanging the item, you decided to just go with it and make it work.

That description fits this Buckeye team very well. On the proverbial Amazon.com page, this team should be able to do it all: Craft running the point and playing the best defense in the country is a no brainer. Thomas can be your other-worldly, do anything scorer, a threat from all spots on the floor. Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel can platoon down low, no problem. Sam Thompson or Shannon Scott could be the standout super sophomores poised to learn the ropes this year and take the team over in the future.

That all sounds well and good. But when that package arrives on the doorstep, the result isn't as good as it looked on the website. Craft is still playing All-American defense, but can't shoot to save his life. Thomas is the best player, but has had minutes-long lapses on offense that have cost the team. Williams and Ravenel do not one collegiate center make. And while Thompson and Scott have been eye-opening so far this year, both have shown that they are still not mature enough to lead the team.

For the most part, Matta has made this team work, eclipsing 80 points on five occasions, while holding teams to 60 or under seven times. But in the losses to Duke and Kansas, the incomplete package was not good enough to hang with the better teams, and the results were not in the Buckeyes' favor.

Thad Matta is widely regarded as an excellent recruiter, a badge of honor he should wear proudly. His "Thad Five" team of 2006-2007 was probably the most complete team he's ever had at any school, and lost to the Buzzsaw that was the Florida Gators in the National Championship. Moreover, this is the same coach who made Evan Turner a National Player of the Year on a Sweet-16 team, and took last year's squad, perhaps his best in his tenure at Ohio State, down to the wire in a Nation Semifinal loss.

Even with the myriad successes under Matta, however, and for all of the credit he rightfully deserves as a recruiter, his teams do seem to always have a missing link. On the Thad Five team, it was a perimeter defensive player who could effectively shut down Florida as they hit three after three after three in the championship. When Turner was running the show, it was a competent big man to take the pressure off, especially after Turner was injured mid-season.

Last year's team was bereft of any gaping holes, but was hurt by Matta, who didn't trust his bench enough during the season, which was a huge factor in the Big Ten tournament against Michigan State, and in the National Semifinal against Kansas. And even had the Buckeyes survived that Kansas game, and even tougher matchup against Kentucky loomed, with even more matchup problems figuring into that possible result.

This year is no different, it suddenly seems. Matta has what should be a great team on the "website". But it is missing a few pieces in practice. After Chicago State and a Big Ten opener against Nebraska, things get difficult, as the Buckeyes travel to The Assembly Hall to take on Illinois, followed by trips to Purdue and Michigan State, with a home date against Michigan pinned in between.

There aren't enough easy games in the Big Ten to answer the few, specific questions that exist for this team, and there never are in what is really one of the best conferences in the country. But Matta has proven time and time again that he can do more with less better than any coach in the country.

And this year, if the Buckeyes want to make a deep March run, he'll have to do just that.

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