The whispers surrounding Ohio State basketball are turning more and more into full-throated shouts following the team’s latest defeat, an 89-66 drubbing at the hands of Wisconsin that wasn’t even as close as the score would suggest.
It isn’t the fact that the Buckeyes lost to a good Badgers squad, one that boasts three players - Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig - that should contend for All-Big Ten first team honors at the end of the season, and did so in Madison, one of the toughest places in the country to pick up a road win. It isn’t even the fact that Ohio State fell to 0-4 in conference play.
It’s the way the Buckeyes lost.
“We just didn’t make an effort as a team,” sophomore guard C.J. Jackson said. “We quit on plays and we weren’t ourselves tonight, and it showed.”
The fact that, in a year in which, as our own Matt Brown pointed out yesterday, the scarlet and gray is a predominantly veteran club, returning its top six scorers from a year ago, the team never really seemed to have a chance of even being competitive. Piled on top of last season’s NCAA tournament miss, the mass transfer of all but one of last year’s recruits after the season, and the loss of Keita Bates-Diop, perhaps Ohio State’s most talented player, to season-ending injury, Thad Matta’s program is simply not trending in the right direction.
This isn’t an indictment of Matta, nor is it a call for the end of his tenure at the helm of the Buckeye program. It is simply to say, as Brown put it yesterday, recruiting has lagged from a few years ago, player development has been spotty at best, and as a result, fans are choosing alternatives for their sporting needs.
Perhaps given Matta’s past successes, not to mention the historic run of the Urban Meyer era on the football field, Ohio State fans have become less patient in the face of mediocrity. Looked at from a certain vantage point, it’s a good problem to have. But the demands for excellence may not be kind to Buckeye hoops if a turnaround doesn’t take place soon, and it’s difficult for most close observers to see that happening in a dramatic way in the foreseeable future.
All of that said, Ohio State is 10-7, which means there is still something to play for. While the team won’t be dancing come March save for a Big Ten tournament championship, there is still the NIT and the potential for everyone not named Marc Loving to begin an upswing in their development to carry over to next season.
That upswing would get a major boost with a win on Sunday against Michigan State at Value City Arena. The Spartans are a fairly young team, one that is both dangerous and also potentially vulnerable.
Let’s take a look at what to watch for with Sparty in town.
Numbers to know
Defensively, Ohio State is 37th in the country, holding opponents to just 39.5 percent shooting. Not one of the Buckeyes’ opponents have broken the 50 percent mark, with Wisconsin having come up just short on Thursday. Michigan State, though, is slightly better in this department, ranking 24th nationally at 39 percent opponent shooting. Both of these teams have a proclivity for turning the ball over and experiencing offensive struggles, which could make for slow, ugly, grind-it-out affair in Columbus.
Spartans head coach Tom Izzo has beaten Matta head-to-head in 15 of 26 meetings, giving Ohio State’s head coach a .423 winning percentage against the green and white. The only other conference opponents that have gotten the better of Matta are Wisconsin (14-12) and Maryland (3-2). Last time the two sides met, Michigan State bounced the Buckeyes from the Big Ten tournament behind a stellar performance from Denzel Valentine, who went on to be named Big Ten Player of the Year and, fortunately, will not be on the court after moving on to the NBA.
One area where Ohio State is vastly improved from the beginning of the season is at the free throw line. The Buckeyes are rank fifth in the Big Ten during conference play with just under a 75 percent success rate at the charity stripe, a marked improvement. By contrast, the Spartans are 328th (of 347) in Division I basketball in free throw percentage, connecting on just 63.3 percent for the season. That mark has risen to 67 percent during conference play, but in a close game, could be a weakness for Ohio State to exploit.
Names to know
The lone remaining member of last year’s highly-touted recruiting class, Lyle has had an uneven year thus far, struggling at times with decision making and turnovers and drawing extended sessions on the bench. But the sophomore has turned it on of late, leading Ohio State in scoring during Big Ten play at 14.8 points per game, as he has seen improvement in his field goal, three-point, and free throw shooting percentages. He also leads the team in assists, though those totals have decreased since the conference schedule began.
A compelling case can be made that Thompson has been the most-improved Buckeye this season, and the matchup with Michigan State looks, on paper at least, to be a favorable one. Nearly averaging a double-double on the season with 10.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, the 7-footer from Indianapolis will be going against a Spartans’ front line with freshman Nick Ward being the biggest regular rotation player at 6-foot-8.
After an ankle injury cost him the month of December, Bridges, a McDonald’s High School All-American who was voted preseason second-team All-Big Ten before playing a collegiate game, is back in the fold for Izzo. A native of Flint, Michigan, Bridges has led Michigan State in scoring (14.5) and rebounding (8.0) in the 11 games he has played. Still trying to rebuild his stamina after the injury, though, he’s averaged just 8.7 points and six boards in 22 minutes during conference play. Bridges is an electric athlete, and will garner a lot of Ohio State’s defensive attention.
Harris, a redshirt senior in his second season in East Lansing after transferring from West Virginia, is another elite athlete with the potential to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Averaging 12.4 points per game on the year and shooting just a touch under 39 percent from three-point range, the Indianapolis product has in-the-gym range, but his scoring, shooting percentage, and minutes are all down during Big Ten play.
How to watch
Game time: 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
TV: CBS (Carter Blackburn & Bill Raftery)