Rushed Reactions: Ohio State 61, Michigan State 58Posted by Chris Johnson on March 16th, 2013
Another patented physical Big Ten tussle in the league’s second Tournament semifinal fell in Ohio State’s favor after a predictably even-matched run of play broke open late in the second half. Aaron Craft led the Buckeyes with 20 points and nine assists. Michigan State forward Derrick Nix finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Chris Johnson is a Big Ten correspondent and RTC columnist. He filed this report after Saturday’s Big Ten semifinal matchup between Ohio State and Michigan State. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Three Key Takeaways:
- DeShaun Thomas Still Needs Help. We’ve said this all season long, and with only intermittent evidence to the contrary, the same problem still holds true as Ohio State prepares for a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Buckeyes can guard; no one’s doubting the Buckeyes’ defensive prowess — this is the same group that, less than two weeks ago, short-circuited the nation’s most explosive offense (Indiana) in one of the most brazen, gutsiest, perception-changing road wins of the season. Finding ways to score points outside of DeShaun Thomas iso sets and late shot-clock jumpers, and doing so in a consistent context, is where OSU will run into real problems in an NCAA Tournament setting. When Ohio State comes across a strong defense, and its offense stalls out, working around a potential Thomas blockade — and rest assured, whatever higher seed Ohio State crosses paths with in the early rounds will make sure to lock down Thomas — could be the difference between advancing and a disappointing early exit. If Aaron Craft can be the offensive safety valve the Buckeyes need, then great. I’m just not convinced, even after today’s offensive brilliance, that he can for four or five straight do-or-die Tournament games over the next couple weeks. His career offensive work to date says otherwise.
- Ohio State and Michigan State are Sweet Sixteen Locks. Book it. There are a handful of traits that distinguish a seasoned NCAA Tournament team. Strong guard play is a big help. Coordinated team-oriented defense is as effective and portable as any group characteristic. Ohio State and Michigan State have both in spades, but that’s not all that makes the Buckeyes and Spartans two of the more dangerous low-seeds in this year’s field. What about coaching? Tom Izzo and Thad Matta tighten the screws March like few other sideline bosses around the country. Leadership? Aaron Craft marshals his charges, on both ends of the floor, better than most floor leaders on any team in the country; Keith Appling and Derrick Nix are an extension of Izzo’s composed toughness. Not only do these teams have all the obvious physical and tactical marks of championship contenders, the intangible credentials are plainly evident. For all the momentum and crowd advantages afforded to home teams in the Big Ten this season, make no mistake: MSU and OSU’s prowess is just as devastating on neutral courts. All of which makes the above claim not only credible but extremely hard to impugn. With the acknowledged anonymity of seeding and matchups, on their own merits OSU and MSU are teams you won’t regret reserving more than a couple spots for in your office pool bracket.
- I can’t Wait For Sunday. The first semifinal of the day continued Wisconsin’s remarkable 12-game winning streak against Indiana, and if you caught a glimpse of the Badgers’ clinical dismantling of the Hoosiers’ top-ranked effeiciency offense, you saw a Wisconsin team playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time. Wisconsin is, inarguably, peaking in March — which is pretty much what every team would like to be able to say with at least some measure of honesty at this point of this season. And for as unassailable as Mike Brueswitz and Ben Brust and Ryan Evans look right now, Ohio State enters Sunday’s final only barely trailing Wisconsin’s imposing form. Craft will counter Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson at the point of attack. Evans will batter Thomas on the block, on offense and defense, in equal doses. Bo Ryan will crouch on the sideline, deadpanning, almost incredulously, as his team’s esteemed yet aesthetically-opposed system clogs Ohio State’s offense and installs a slow, shotclock-milking, industrious style of play. To their credit, the Buckeyes are just as capable of bringing home the conference tournament crown. For one, Ohio State’s defensive strength and apparent perimeter scoring complement, Aaron Craft, will test Wisconsin in ways Michigan and Indiana could not. The Buckeyes are slowly, if only minimally, attempting to reduce their reliance on Thomas. But maybe the biggest reason this game shapes up to be one of the most entertaining in a conference that’s produced tantalizing contests all season is the Buckeyes’ defense. Few teams are locking down opponents like Ohio State right now, and with a league tournament title in the balance, that defensive strength will clash with Wisconsin’s foolproof D to conjure up a delectable Big Ten showdown.
Star of the Game. Aaron Craft. Everything I wrote above about Ohio State’s secondary scoring shortages still stands. But Craft is making it hard to defend my logic. The rosy-cheeked point guard was more than his usual defense-defined self Saturday, probing a tenacious MSU defensive front, fizzing the ball around the perimeter to open shooters and adding energetic hustle plays around the margins to fend off any and all of the Spartans’ second half comebacks at a moment’s notice. When it was over, Craft had 20 points, nine assists, four steals and an incalculable aura of confidence and vigor that rubbed off on teammates over the course of this 40-minute classic Big Ten slugfest.
Sights and Sounds. Rare is the pack of rabid college hoops fans fans who, in the process of screaming and cheering and berating their team’s head coach, dispense a fair balance of truly insightful basketball wisdom. A pack of knowledgeable Buckeyes supporters enlightened my fan-negligent perspective. In the middle of the first half, when Michigan State forward Derrick Nix was punishing OSU’s size-deficient front court with easy putbacks and taking claim of the offensive and defensive glass, two Buckeyes partisans, realizing the need for a substitution, barked “put Ravenel in!” in reference to Ohio State reserve forward Evan Ravenel. It took a while before Matta acted on his fans’ counsel, but Ravenel eventually entered, threw his hefty frame at Nix’s heftier one, and mitigated MSU’s biggest — literally and metaphorically — personnel advantage.
Key Moment. At the over four-minute mark Ohio State held an eight point lead and appeared to be putting the finishing touches on another prominent resume win. Keith Appling canned a three, Nix powered home a layup, and all of a sudden, thanks to a quick turnaround, the Spartans had cut the lead to one point with just over a minute remaining. As Aaron Craft approached the three-point line as the crowd rose in anticipation, Shannon Scott ran around a screen and flashed the corner for a quick catch-and-shoot. Scott’s three rimmed out, and Michigan State was well positioned to grab the rebound and embark on a potential game-tying possession — a sizeable deficit quickly evaporated. Or not: DeShaun Thomas tipped the rebound out to the perimeter and Ohio State regained possession and called a quick timeout. Thomas scored shortly thereafter and, but for some late jumpers and free throws, Ohio State had stemmed MSU’s second-half surge once and for all.
What’s Next. After a strong finish to the regular season, Ohio State rolled into the best league in the country’s conference Tournament, dispatched Nebraska and Michigan State and moves on to face Wisconsin Sunday with a Big Ten tournament title on the line. Michigan State will lick its wounds and flip the yearly Izzoian NCAA Tournament switch before its opening-round matchup this Thursday or Friday — subject to region, seed and bracket placement.