Night Line: Buckeyes Hold Serve at Purdue, But Plenty Left To ProvePosted by BHayes on January 9th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Any Big Ten road win accrued this season holds value, as the conference is an especially treacherous version of its normally solid self here in 2012-13. So kudos Ohio State; you went into West Lafayette tonight and gave the home team only a few sniffs of the upset they sought, and in the process earned your first Big Ten road victory of the year. Purdue may be young and a year or two away from Big Ten relevancy, but good teams will exit Mackey Arena losers this winter; this game was far from an automatic W. Praise the workmanlike effort tonight from Thad Matta’s bunch, but do not mistake it for a cure-all to the recent ails of the Buckeyes. For Ohio State to live up to both preseason expectations and the standard set by Buckeye squads of years past, the performances in the statement games must improve – beginning on Saturday, when arch-rival and undefeated #2 Michigan arrives in Columbus. But does this Ohio State team have it in them?
Like it or not Buckeyes, the recent success of your program has created a standard of significant height, one that can really only be matched by a handful of programs across the country. That recent excellence, combined with the returns of starters Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith prompted pollsters to rank Ohio State fourth this preseason, and few blinked an eye. The Buckeyes have done nothing that ranks as truly cringe-worthy thus far, but they also can’t lay claim to a victory over a team likely to make the NCAA Tournament field (unless you are bullish on Washington winning some games in the Pac-12). Ohio State has also whiffed on their three big-time chances for statement Ws (at Duke, Kansas, at Illinois). The polarizing nature of the schedule is partially to blame here, as Craft and company have had no opportunities to prove their worth against solid Tournament teams (giving Illinois the benefit of the doubt here as “elite,” partially because that game was in Champaign). Still, we are comfortably into the New Year and Ohio State, a team some still consider to be among the nation’s best, has absolutely nothing of major substance on that resume.
A look at the metrics would show little to pick fault with; Ohio State is in the top-20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the only worrisome statistic (besides their SOS of #265) is their 67.6% free throw shooting. But what may have worked against UMKC and Savannah State proved less successful in those three big games, especially on the offensive end. The Buckeyes could manage no better than 34% field goal shooting in any of the three, largely explained by the absence of any sort of consistent second or third scorer next to Thomas. Matta’s two best candidates to fill those roles, Craft and Smith, combined to shoot 19-of-68(28%) against the big boys. Needless to say, the offense has to be a little more efficient to hang with the nation’s elite, let alone the wealth of solid teams in the middle of the Big Ten.
As easily identifiable as the problem may be here, Thad Matta has no easy solution lying in front of him. Smith is, at best, a competent third option – a slashing wing that can knock down the three-point shot, but will struggle when forced to create his own. Craft may be a basketball purist’s dream: a gritty leader who defends and distributes at a truly elite level, but he is nothing more than a solid scorer, capable of knocking down the open three and not much more. A glance elsewhere on the roster shows no immediate help either, Sam Thompson’s mind-numbing athleticism notwithstanding. Before tonight’s tilt, Matta discussed possibly moving backup point guard Shannon Scott into the starting lineup alongside Craft, although he would ultimately decide against it. Commend the head coach for the recognition that things may need some changing, but that potential shift may not be the cure either, as Scott has yet to display the scoring touch the Buckeyes so desperately need.
Some offensive issues aside, doomsday is a long way from Columbus. As long as Thad Matta is at the helm, Aaron Craft is handling the ball, and Deshaun Thomas is getting his 15 to 20 shots per game up, the bottom will not fall out. But if the guys around Thomas can’t find a way to put the ball in the basket more efficiently, the Buckeyes also won’t be spending much time in the rarefied air of recent years. They may be 0-3 against the nation’s elite so far, but the beauty of this Big Ten is that many more statement games lie ahead of Ohio State. The next one arrives quickly – Saturday against Michigan. Can Matta find that second scorer, and more importantly, can the Buckeyes prove that they are still a national power worthy of conversation among the game’s best teams?