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.