After the less than stellar performance in the Buckeye's two premier out of conference games, should fans be worried before Big Ten play, or was it just a harmless holiday hangover?
So one of the nice things about this whole being a teetotaler business is that I've never physically *experienced* a hangover. Correct me in the comments if you want though, but I feel like I have a pretty good vicarious idea what one is like. The throbbing in the head, the dry throat, the aversion to bright lights and sounds, the understanding that a little shut eye and a big greasy burrito will make it all go away...I've been there man.
That's totally where I was after all the Christmas hullabaloo ended. All the overstimulation, eating enough Christmas cookies to turn my blood into a 7/11 slurpee, the listening to enough Harry Conick Jr to give a man Stockholm Syndrome. I love everybody, but at the end, I just wanted to crawl into my room, andpop Advil like they were Skittles while I hope that the throbbing is just a harmless holiday hangover, and not something a little more serious that might knock me out of the office for a few days.
You could be forgiven for thinking similarly about the Ohio State basketball team so far. Are they suffering from a harmless holiday hangover, or is their performance so far indicative of more serious flaws?
It's not like their two losses were horrible. The Bucks dropped single digit games to the best team in the country on the road (Duke) and a top 10 squad at home that may just have their number (Kansas). More importantly, both teams have a significant matchup advantage down low, featuring dominant post presences in Mason Plumblee and Jeff Withey, the likes of which are few and far between in Big Ten play, outside of maybe Cody Zeller. Struggling against elite competition in those two games is no great crime.
It's hard not to be a little concerned, though. First, despite their top 10 ranking, the Buckeyes still don't have anything close to a signature win. The Washington Huskies are the closest thing to a marquee win, but they've already lost four ames, including matchups against Albany and Nevada, and they aren't projected to be a factor in a down Pac-12. I won't sit here and pretend to be an expert on America East or Big West basketball, so it's certainly possible that Albany or Long Beach State could go on a run in conference play and make the tourney, but neither victory will overly impress a selection committee or prepare a squad for the rigors of Michigan, or even Minnesota. Outside of a less-than-confidence inspiring matchup with Winthop and the aforementioned losses, the Buckeyes haven't had to try for a full game to get a win.
I don't want to ruin the anticipation for our next preview article in a few days, but SPOILER ALERT, don't look for that to change against Chicago State. They're one of the worst teams in D1 basketball, and would probably lose to a view Division II schools.
Perhaps the more worrying problem has been Ohio State's tendency to go on prolonged scoring droughts. Deshaun Thomas has been the prolific bucket-getter we've hoped he would be, and various other Buckeyes have performed very well in bursts, but nobody has stepped up to be the night in, night out, secondary offense option. Lenzelle Smith Jr? He's second on the team at 11 ppg, but he's 1-12 from three over his last two game, and has been a little sporadic.
LaQuinton Ross may be the most offensively gifted of the Buckeyes, but has been even more inconsistent, which keeps Matta from being able to give him enough burn to change a game. Sam Thompson has nearly single highhandedly kept this blog in business with his prolific dunking ability, but his mid to long range game is still a work in progress.
Aaron Craft, despite all the effort he may have put in during the summer to improve his shot, is Aaron Craft. That's not a criticism, since every team in the country would kill for his toughness, aggressive on the ball defense, and passing ability. It would be unfair to continue to ask him to be something he isn't.
There won't be many easy nights in the Big Ten, but the start of conference play opens up about as nicely as possible for Ohio State. Tough road games loom at Michigan State and an overachieving Illinois squad, but before February 2nd, Ohio State gets two dates with bottom feeder Nebraska, very manageable road games against a very young and low scoring Purdue squad, and a Tim Frazier-less Penn State. They algo get home dates again Iowa and a Wisconsin team that has underperformed a little. It's not an easy stretch (Michigan comes to town then as well), but compared to the final stretch of conference play, things are a little easier.
That will give Ohio State plenty of time to determine if their easy season problems are merely holiday hangovers, or something more structural. I think you can forgive the Bucks for a close loss at Duke, and they wouldn't be the first athletes to let holiday stress impact their performance (paging Rex Grossman), but those early season jitters can no longer be an excuse. With nine games against top 20 teams ahead on the schedule right now, Ohio State better find their Advil and their three-point shooting stroke quickly, or they could be buried in conference play.
The big stresses should be over. Here is hoping what ails the Buckeyes can be fixed with a big greasy burrito and a little R&R. It works for the rest of us, anyway.