Stories Sports RappUp Stories Summarizing A Spring Game <strong>Urban Meyer</strong>’s candor was the winner on Saturday, not the Gray team that defeated the Scarlet, 17-7, in the annual Spring Game.<br /> <br /> Or maybe it was the 61,058 fans who got to sit in sun-splashed Ohio Stadium at a reduced rate – the university planned to sell day-of-game tickets for $20 but knocked that fee down to a mere $5 – and take a peek at a semblance of the 2014 team.<br /> <br /> Either way, the point is clear: Don’t read too much into this “game.”<br /> <br /> The Spring Game always has been a glorified practice, the last of the 15 allowable at this time of year, and Meyer has been careful not to over-promise out of it.<br /> <br /> While <strong>Jim Tressel</strong> allowed the media to sit in on the draft that split the roster into two teams and understood the Spring Game was yet another vehicle for the school to raise money and awareness of other endeavors on campus, Meyer has practically grumbled about it and admitted after the competition yesterday that it’s not functional to assess the offensive and defensive units as a whole from it.<br /> <br /> He also warned not to overanalyze action pitting players “who are never going to play or are not ready to play.”<br /> <br /> That’s not exactly the talk of a salesman.<br /> <br /> But, of course, Meyer has a point – maybe <em>the</em> point.<br /> <br /> The Spring Game often leads to silly discussion – even at places like 610 (AM) WTVN Radio, where I also offer my analysis of the team – like, “Hey, how do those running backs look? or “So is the linebacking corps going to be better this season?”<br /> <br /> We don’t really know. I mean, how could we?<br /> <br /> It’s noteworthy that the two offenses were very un-dynamic as the victorious Gray managed just 262 total yards and 4.9 per play while the Scarlet, despite the presence of the top available quarterback in <strong>Cardale Jones</strong> and the expected starter at tailback in <strong>Ezekiel Elliott</strong>, was even more anemic with just 185 yards and 3.7 per play.<br /> <br /> However, that’s not real surprising considering the team’s top two returning offensive linemen, <strong>Taylor Decker</strong> and <strong>Pat Elflein</strong>, were held out of action, <strong>Braxton Miller</strong> was wearing a headset instead of a helmet all afternoon and skill players such as <strong>Dontre Wilson</strong>, <strong>Jalin Marshall</strong> and <strong>Evan Spencer</strong> also were not on the field.<br /> <br /> With the roster halved to accommodate the two teams as is usually the format, the offensive line always appears patchwork in these exhibitions, making it harder for any real cohesion. That’s why guys like <strong>Rashad Frazier</strong> and <strong>Tyquan Lewis</strong> looked like playmakers.<br /> <br /> Oh, did I mention all four starters along the defensive line – <strong>Noah Spence</strong>, <strong>Joey Bosa</strong>, <strong>Adolphus Washington</strong> and <strong>Michael Bennett</strong> – also sat this one out?<br /> <br /> My hunch going in was that the Scarlet team had a little bit more firepower but the Gray squad had a slight edge in terms of linemen. If that was indeed true then perhaps this game showed that blocking is the most important aspect to an effective offense, but we already knew that.<br /> <br /> So what did we learn, if anything, after Saturday? Here are a few observations:<br /> <br /> <strong>* The Buckeyes are deadly serious about being more aggressive in the secondary.</strong> <strong>Chris Ash</strong> was brought in from Arkansas – he impressed Meyer at Wisconsin prior to following <strong>Bret Bielema</strong> to Razorback country – to be the architect of the renovation of the back end of the defense.<br /> <br /> To say the Buckeyes were dismal stopping the pass at key moments last year would be kind. Michigan racked up 451 yards in the air and four scores against OSU, although the Buckeyes hung on for a 42-41 win. In the Big Ten Championship Game, it was Michigan State quarterback <strong>Connor Cook</strong>’s turn as he recorded a career-high 304 yards and three scoring tosses.<br /> <br /> The 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl was even more painful: 378 passing yards and five TDs for <strong>Tajh Boyd</strong> – and the Buckeyes are still trying to locate wide receiver <strong>Sammy Watkins</strong>.<br /> <br /> But on Saturday – again, against lesser competition and in a non-stressful environment – the OSU defensive backs pressed up, challenged, cut off routes and broke up passes.<br /> <br /> When asked if the DBs went into the day hoping to make a statement, safety <strong>Tyvis Powell</strong> said, “Absolutely. That was a huge emphasis on today. It was a way to showcase that we’ve improved and we’re capable of making plays.<br /> <br /> “I don’t really recall us being beaten deep today. In the second half we made a couple errors but as far as I’m concerned we really didn’t give up too many big plays.”<br /> <br /> Again, the players in the secondary didn’t have to account for Miller running around, but they didn’t have their best pass rushers up front, either, and held up well. Jones was just 14 of 31 passing for 126 yards and no TDs while <strong>J.T. Barrett</strong> was a similar 17 of 33 for 151 yards and no TDs for the Gray.<br /> <br /> <strong>* This new approach also could be beneficial to the wide receivers.</strong> <strong>Corey Smith</strong>, only known for his ability to stretch defenses to this point, showed he could take a few knocks over the middle and was rewarded with five catches for 72 yards. <strong>Michael Thomas</strong> again was a Spring Game star with a game-high six receptions for 64 yards.<br /> <br /> Spencer, when he returns to health, certainly is physical enough to play against press defenses and also is an outstanding blocker. <strong>Devin Smith</strong> needs to join that party, and maybe has the message now, especially since he won’t be the only burner on the field.<br /> <br /> The unit lost leading wideout <strong>Philly Brown</strong> and still has some proving to do, but there is depth and talent at receiver just two years after Meyer called the passing game a “clown show.”<br /> <br /> Trying to rub off of the likes of <strong>Doran Grant</strong>, <strong>Armani Reeves</strong>, <strong>Gareon Conley</strong>, Powell, <strong>Vonn Bell</strong> and <strong>Cam Burrows</strong> – who all aren’t afraid of contact – will make the receivers a little better at working through the play.<br /> <br /> Conceivably, the group should be better at reading defenses and more comfortable with Miller, who is a senior.<br /> <br /> Meyer said after the Spring Game that he couldn’t name one receiver that is sure to start but that he believes at least six of them have the talent to play and threaten defenses. That group includes Marshall and true freshman <strong>Johnnie Dixon</strong>.<br /> <br /> “He just keeps pushing and keeps working,” Grant said of Dixon. “He’s a very mature young guy.”<br /> <br /> <strong>* Things are coming into focus at linebacker.</strong> Meyer said junior <strong>Joshua Perry</strong> has shown the coaches enough to pencil him in at the weakside ’backer spot so ably handled by <strong>Ryan Shazier</strong> the last couple years and that redshirt freshman <strong>Chris Worley</strong> is a capable backup there.<br /> <br /> On the strong side, the story has been <strong>Darron Lee</strong>, a former prep quarterback at nearby New Albany High School, who has embraced the “4 to 6, A to B” mantra as well as anyone. Now listed 6-2 and 225 pounds, Lee makes up his mind and gets places in a hurry.<br /> <br /> The battle will rage on between senior <strong>Curtis Grant</strong> and freshman <strong>Raekwon McMillan</strong> for the inside post but each should play a lot and is coming off an eye-opening spring. That’s a good problem to have, especially since Grant doesn’t have reason to feel too secure considering his injury background.<br /> <br /> With the front four as capable as any unit on the team and the secondary rounding into form with Ash pushing the buttons, the linebackers are challenged with answering the bell and making the Ohio State defense formidable once again.<br /> <br /> So far, so good.<br /> <br /> <strong>* Miller needs to stay healthy.</strong> Meyer insisted Jones had a good spring. He said it repeatedly throughout the last several weeks. And it’s clear the redshirt sophomore is a little more polished and focused than in the previous two years.<br /> <br /> Plus, Jones is not someone most defenders would like to meet in the middle of the field if the brutish (6-5, 250) QB has a head of steam. He’s, quite simply, a load.<br /> <br /> Still, this is no <strong>Kenny Guiton</strong> we’re talking about here.<br /> <br /> Jones had ample chance to make a few big plays in the Spring Game yet averaged just 4.1 yards per pass attempt and 3.5 on the ground. That’s not exactly awe-inspiring, whatever the format.<br /> <br /> His ball handling is even more obvious than that of Miller and Barrett and his passes tend to sail off target the deeper downfield he looks. Jones is still a work in progress, and it’s safe to say the offense would take a couple steps backward if he had to replace Miller in the fall.<br /> <br /> <strong>* On the flip side, the running back roles are not yet set but there are plenty of commodities.</strong><br /> <br /> I’m an Elliott fan and still believe he will lead this team in rushing attempts and yards by someone not named Braxton Miller. And with <strong>Rod Smith</strong> dealing with academic concerns and <strong>Bri’onte Dunn</strong> having endured his share of off-field difficulties, don’t rule out a noticeable contribution from <strong>Warren Ball</strong>.<br /> <br /> In just eight carries Saturday, Ball managed to produce 55 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a swing pass for 8 yards and appears to be as smooth as any Buckeye running back in that aspect of the game.<br /> <br /> “You just have to take your strengths and enhance and grow that because everyone has their own strength and their own talents,” said Ball, a local product of Columbus DeSales. “For me, I have a strong downhill running style and I can catch the ball out of the backfield.”<br /> <br /> With <strong>Carlos Hyd</strong>e and <strong>Jordan Hall</strong> departed, opportunity awaits this year’s running backs. Meyer believes freshman <strong>Curtis Samuel</strong> is a potential gamebreaker and we know Wilson will get some handoffs as well.<br /> <br /> It’s hard to know what to predict here but it appears that the Buckeyes have enough pieces to incite fear in opposing defenses.<br /> <br /> “We have a lot of weapons,” Ball said. “Today was just a small display but I know the sky’s the limit with this offense.”<br /> <br /> A small display. We’ll have to take it – that and a 78-degree afternoon.<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 51bdf0df-28e9-4591-a08c-7dcea23057fa Mon, 14 Apr 2014 17:13:27 GMT No. 15, Your Table Is Ready The LiFE Sports Spring Game will allow Ohio State fans – and coaches – a chance to peek at their beloved football team and see how individuals and units perform in the setting of Ohio Stadium.<br /> <br /> And that element of scrimmaging under the public microscope and in a gameday-like environment is what makes the Spring Game more than what it otherwise is – a glorified practice.<br /> <br /> While some of the developments from the game tend to be overblown – let’s face it, it’s not like Michigan State is coming to town or that any of the statistics count for much – the storyline are interesting and often telling.<br /> <br /> Perhaps most reliable is the fact that some Buckeye running backs will be on full display and in a competitive mood. With <strong>Carlos Hyde</strong> and his 1,500 rushing yards from last season now departed, Ohio State needs a productive runner pronto, and, as usual, has a healthy stable of candidates.<br /> <br /> Topping the list is sophomore <strong>Ezekiel Elliott</strong>, a 6-0, 225-pound package of power, speed and athletic grace.<br /> <br /> “He’s everything you want in a tailback,” head coach <strong>Urban Meyer</strong> said recent of Elliott, who arrived last year as a high-end prospect out of the St. Louis area. “First of all, he’s a great Buckeye and does everything right on and off the field, and he’s also a 13.7 high-hurdler guy who has that speed. When he gets out in the open, he can be a gamebreaker for us.”<br /> <br /> Elliott figures to be a feature performer in the Spring Game on Saturday (1:30 p.m. Eastern, Big Ten Network) and likely will lead the Scarlet rushing attack. Quarterbacks <strong>Cardale Jones</strong> and <strong>Stephen Collier</strong> will be encouraged to spread the ball around but likely will feed plenty of handoffs to Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards on 30 carries last season as a frosh.<br /> <br /> The Scarlet backfield also will include freshman <strong>Curtis Samuel</strong> and sophomore H-back <strong>Dontre Wilson</strong>.<br /> <br /> The Gray team will counter with young QB <strong>J.T. Barrett</strong> but have plenty of running options with veterans <strong>Rod Smith</strong>, <strong>Bri’onte Dunn</strong> and <strong>Warren Ball</strong> all at his avail. Dunn and Ball were redshirt freshmen last season while Elliott and Wilson were newcomers.<br /> <br /> “Well, the thing with them is maturity,” running back coach <strong>Stan Drayton</strong> said prior to the start of last season. “They’ve got to be able to understand the offense and learn, and for most freshmen that’s always been the thorn in their side as to whether they play or not. These two guys are coming in as a ball of clay with natural football instincts and they’ve been coached really well.<br /> <br /> “They understand the game, they pick up on things rather quickly, and that will determine when they play and how much they play.”<br /> <br /> Wilson showed flashes last season but became more of a decoy in the second half of the campaign. Plus, he was tossed during the Michigan game for swinging at a horde of Wolverines who roughed him up after the whistle.<br /> <br /> Elliott was a steadier presence and seems perfectly fit for Hyde’s role of top rusher. He found the end zone three times last season and is as adept at perhaps any rusher in the Big Ten at turning the corner and getting upfield. Most of all, though, he shows up ready to do work.<br /> <br /> “He’s a very conscientious young man, he has strong character off the football field, and all that stuff has transferred into his play,” Drayton said. “He’s very mature for his age and given his functional strength, I didn’t know he was going to come in as physical and productive as he is right now.<br /> <br /> “He still has a lot to learn and a lot to grow from but he is definitely on track to providing some production for this football team.”<br /> <br /> Ohio State fans, of course, are glad to hear that and are still rejoicing that Elliott fell in love with Columbus and the program on his visit. Before that, all signs pointed to him going to Missouri, especially with the Tigers ticketed to join the SEC.<br /> <br /> “My dad played football at Mizzou and my mom ran track at Mizzou,” he told SRU. “It’s kind of hard leaving the area. I can go to school an hour away from home rather than a six-hour drive, but I think I made the right decision to come here, and I get to compete to play on one of the biggest stages of college football.”<br /> <br /> Elliott said he didn’t have to make a hard sell to his mom and dad once he had his heart set on being a Buckeye.<br /> <br /> “They weren’t against it,” he said. “They were all for my decision. They weren’t going to push me one way or the other, so I think they did a good job with that part of the recruiting process. They’re here and my little sister is here wearing Ohio State gear. There are no regrets about me coming here.”<br /> <br /> And Elliott certainly intends to make the most of his time at OSU. He quickly figured out how to win favor with the coaches and find the daylight on the football field.<br /> <br /> “I wanted to be mentally prepared,” he said. “You know it’s going to be hard but you’ve got to go a hundred miles an hour and give great effort, and that’s what I’ve been doing. You’ve got to stay humble and keep working every day.”<br /> <br /> Elliott could hold down the inside track to a starting position with a big showing on Saturday, but the coaches aren’t giving up on Smith, a talented fifth-year senior who still is trying to live up to expectations. A product of Fort Wayne, Ind., Smith played in 11 games last year and produced 117 rushing yards on 22 carries (5.3 per attempt). He also rammed in a touchdown and caught four passes out of the backfield.<br /> <br /> “Rod is hungry and he’s an energy provider,” Drayton said. “And that’s one thing I like about a Rod. He goes out there and fights for what he wants. He’s not afraid to compete with anybody out there. And he’s such a value to us on special teams that he’s on the bus.<br /> <br /> “He’s still growing himself but he’s older. There’s nothing that is going to surprise him from our coaches or the way we practice or anything. He’s got all that figured out now. Now he’s just trying to get better fundamentally as a football player, and I’m starting to see a lot of stuff growing from him mentally, too.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 19233281-6023-4954-8ba6-a29ba6790e93 Fri, 11 Apr 2014 18:05:42 GMT Reeves Is Ready To Muscle Up Sometimes <strong>Armani Reeves</strong> surveys the Ohio State practice field looking for a No. 1 on defense who isn’t there.<br /> <br /> True freshman <strong>Johnnie Dixon</strong> has the numeral now, but he’s a wide receiver. <strong>Bradley Roby</strong>, who left a year of eligibility on the table to enter next month’s draft, is no longer around, leaving a hole in the OSU secondary.<br /> <br /> Reeves has been tabbed to fill that hole, which, of course, is exciting for the junior from West Roxbury, Mass. Still, there have been days this spring when Reeves finds himself missing Roby. <br /> <br /> “It’s definitely weird because I looked to him like he was my older brother,” Reeves told SRU recently. “Anytime I had a question or needed a ride or anything like that, he was there for me. It’s kind of weird not having him here anymore, but I take the things that he taught me and put it to the younger guys and do the same things he did for me.”<br /> <br /> “He’s one of the greatest DBs we’ve ever had here and obviously I want the young guys and myself to be great, too.”<br /> <br /> Reeves clearly is feeling the responsibility of carry himself as a starting cornerback, especially considering all the young, unproven talent behind him and <strong>Doran Grant</strong>, who has shifted over to Roby’s boundary position and is on the brink of a big senior season.<br /> <br /> With the Spring Game set to wrap up March/April drills this Saturday, Reeves is trying show that he can handle the second CB spot, take charge of his opportunity, and do everything necessary to create trust with his teammates and coaches.<br /> <br /> “I feel like they see a good side of me,” he said. “I try to be a nice person. That helps, too.”<br /> <br /> Grant, for example, sees Reeves engaging and winning over those around him.<br /> <br /> “He’s a great guy,” he said.<br /> <br /> Reeves struggled at the beginning of last season while Roby was serving a suspension for an offseason incident, causing some to wonder if he could hold up at the position. But he improved as his sophomore campaign moved onward and showed feistiness.<br /> <br /> Reeves played in 13 of the 14 games in 2013 and recorded 26 total tackles including 16 solos, defended eight passes, broke up another seven, grabbed an interception and forced a fumble. Not bad for part-time work.<br /> <br /> Now the trick is to build on what he’s done and maintain steady play as a full-time starter.<br /> <br /> “I feel ready and I feel confident,” he said. “I think that’s half the battle with corners, being confident that I can do the job.”<br /> <br /> Grant is among the believers.<br /> <br /> “I feel like he’s ready,” he said. “He’s been playing well this spring. He’s been working hard in the offseason training, taking coaching. He’s been leading with his voice, his passion, everything. And he’s got some experience behind him also.”<br /> <br /> Now listed 5-10 and 198 pounds, Reeves is muscular and naturally physical as a defender. He has no problem breathing down the neck of receivers and may be the most ecstatic Buckeye that the coaches have decided to employ press coverage this season.<br /> <br /> “You see it every Sunday,” Reeves said. “All you see is <strong>Richard Sherman</strong>, <strong>Patrick Peterson</strong> all pressed up and doing their thing. That’s what you dream of, pressing up and thinking, ‘You’re not catching the ball on me.’ If you have that mentality on every play, great things are going to happen.”<br /> <br /> The approach fits with Reeves’ strengths as he is adept at tangling with receivers and moving them off of their routes. He says he has decreased his body fat, regularly benches more than 300 pounds and most days weighs in right on 200 pounds.<br /> <br /> “I’m a workout freak,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll sit there and do curls for a half hour if you let me. Sometimes they have to get me out of there.<br /> <br /> “I like working out, I like getting big, I like getting strong. And I’m quick. So with those things to my advantage I think I’ll be all right.”<br /> <br /> Reeves might be better than all right. He’s learned under Roby and Grant and accepts that his time has arrived. And the timing of his promotion coincides with the arrival of new secondary coach <strong>Chris Ash</strong>, who has raised eyebrows with his aggressive defenses.<br /> <br /> “When I heard he got hired I went straight to YouTube because that’s the only place I was going to find film, and I watched all the things he did at Wisconsin and Arkansas and really liked it,” Reeves said. “I was excited to get some fresh blood in here and pick his brain because he’s had success around the country.<br /> <br /> “When you get new guys like that you always have to be happy and know they’re bringing something different to the table, and it benefits you.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Kerry Coombs</strong> still is in charge of the cornerbacks but Ash will have a lot of input in the defense as <strong>Luke Fickell</strong>’s co-coordinator.<br /> <br /> “He’s like a younger Coach Coombs and he still has all the energy,” Reeves said of Ash.<br /> <br /> Head coach Urban Meyer is on a quest to patch and improve a defense that allowed 22.6 points and 268.0 passing yards per game last season. The Buckeyes also let opponents convert 36 percent of their third-down plays into first downs. The problem was most galling in the one-point win at Michigan, the Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State and the 40-35 setback at the hands of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.<br /> <br /> The key to getting that corrected – and erasing the shortcomings of last season – will be the play of the secondary with Roby and longtime starting safeties <strong>C.J. Barnett</strong> and <strong>Christian Bryant</strong> departed.<br /> <br /> “I wouldn’t say it haunts us; I think it motivates us,” Reeves said. “Everyone knows the defense last year had its ups and downs. This year we’ve got a fresh start and we’re just going to come out hungry.<br /> <br /> “The only thing it can do is motivate you to play better than last year because, trust me, there’s no going down. You can only go up from there.<br /> <br /> “We’ll get there. It’s a process. We’ve put a lot of new things in, but I’m not worried about it at all. If we can play hard right now, that’s all we can ask for.”<br /> <br /> And that is where Reeves really stands out.<br /> <br /> Coombs said he asked all of his corners at the outset of spring practice which player in the room plays the hardest.<br /> <br /> “They all said Armani,” the position coach said.<br /> <br /> Coombs’ reaction: “OK, fine. Why are we not all playing like Armani? So it lifts him up and puts a little bounce in his step because now you’ve become the standard.”<br /> <br /> As far as Coombs is concerned, Reeves already has the most important aspect of the job mastered.<br /> <br /> “Here’s the thing about Armani Reeves: No one is ever going to question his 4 to 6 seconds,” he said. “Anybody who’s watched him play – whether it was as one of the piranhas running down the field on kickoff or playing in the dime role or the corner role last year – you have a question of how hard is he going to go. He’s already got that, and what a great thing for him.<br /> <br /> “He goes really, really hard. And Armani is a good football player. He’s young, he’s inexperienced, and he didn’t get as many plays. You’ve got to play ball to play ball, and Armani will be very good this year. I’m really excited about him.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 9b997e77-cba8-4ab6-849d-599720321efc Wed, 09 Apr 2014 17:08:52 GMT Rapp Around: Cinderella Went Home On the surface, Monday’s college basketball finale is a battle of underdogs.<br /> <br /> Connecticut, a 7-seed in the South Region, looks like a team of destiny after scraping by St. Joseph’s in its first NCAA Tournament game in Buffalo – remember Buffalo? – and raising the bar in the four contests that have followed.<br /> <br /> Then again, Kentucky, an 8-seed in the Midwest, has made one of the most remarkable runs in the history of the Big Dance.<br /> <br /> All the Wildcats have done to advance to the national championship game is get by a well-coached Kansas State team in an 8-9 contest, dump out top-seeded and undefeated Wichita State, upend defending national champ and archrival Louisville, make the winning plays against Big Ten champ and NCAA runner-up Michigan, and come through in the clutch again in a Final Four war with Wisconsin.<br /> <br /> In fact, if Kentucky wins it all, <strong>John Calipari</strong>’s team will become the team to do so with the hardest path ever – if you can measure such a thing by adding up all of the seeds of the opponents. And that’s with playing the first 7-seed to ever make it to the title game.<br /> <br /> So that’s one way of looking at it, the way CBS no doubt will market it. Neither of these two combatants even made the NCAA Tournament last year. What could be more Cinderella than that?<br /> <br /> Of course, that doesn’t really wash when two programs with elite name recognition and with multiple national championships are in the final game. I should celebrate this unlikely final pairing, but I have to admit it leaves me a little flat. OK, a lot flat.<br /> <br /> And it’s not because my bracket is busted. It was a few years ago when Butler was making it to championship games, and I was riveted.<br /> <br /> UConn? Really? I was in the arena watching St. Joe’s handling the Huskies in the final game on the first full day of the tourney and then the Hawk apparently forgot to keep flapping. St. Joe’s fizzled down the stretch and in overtime and the Huskies got stronger. They’ve been very impressive since the reprieve, taking down 2-seed Villanova, 3-seed Iowa State and 4-seed Michigan State, not to mention Saturday’s bludgeoning of Florida.<br /> <br /> The Gators came to the Dance as the overall No. 1 seed and opened up a 16-4 lead on UConn in Dallas. Time to take out the trash, right? Only the Huskies responded with a blistering 27-6 run, opened up an eight-point lead and took control of the first semifinal.<br /> <br /> <strong>Kevin Ollie</strong>, a former UConn player, has emerged as a new coaching star – always one of the neat side benefits of this tournament.<br /> <br /> So at least UConn can be considered a very pleasant surprise and has been anything but fluky.<br /> <br /> The emergence of the Wildcats, though, doesn’t quite emit the same warm and fuzzy feelings, even though they are now the clear media darlings.<br /> <br /> After all, this was a team that was talking about winning 40 games going into the season and was outclassed early in the year against Michigan State and North Carolina and in all three contests with SEC foe Florida. UK was swept by Arkansas and lost at South Carolina and LSU, for the love of Pete.<br /> <br /> You can say the committee rigged the tournament by giving Kentucky an 8 but with 10 losses and few meaningful wins, that’s actually what Calipari’s crew deserved.<br /> <br /> It’s noteworthy because, as usual, there are about five future pros on the roster. At least. Calipari has been on campus less than five full years and he’s already churned out 17 players to the NBA draft. That is staggering.<br /> <br /> This is what he does. This is what Kentucky does – put premium athletes on the floor and let it rip.<br /> <br /> I’m not knocking the model. I’m not even knocking the program. It’s the envy of most of college basketball. And the Wildcats should play the way they play. They’re good and they know it. They swat shots, they grab steals, they throw down rim-rattling dunks. And, as we’ve found out, they hit huge shots with the game on the line.<br /> <br /> And it’s not as if they’ve gotten this far purely on AAU-like ball. The ’Cats looked like anything but freshmen in the win over Wichita State, for example. Their play was steady. Their demeanor was impressive. They made almost all of their free throws.<br /> <br /> Still, I watched the second semifinal intently as UK took on Wisconsin and found myself rooting for the Badgers not just because of their Big Ten affiliation but because of their style of play.<br /> <br /> Yes, the floor had a salt-and-pepper look to it at times but I’m not trying to equate “style” with “race.” That’s not the point. I wanted Wisconsin to win simply because it would have represented that patient, fundamental, read-the-defense, pass-and-cut basketball could prevail over the modern mentality of attack the rim, launch a bunch of threes and attack some more.<br /> <br /> In other words, I wanted Midwestern, <strong>Jimmy Chitwood</strong> basketball to shine once again on the biggest college stage and remind that there is more to the sport than how high you jump, how fast you pierce a defense on the drive and how loftily you were ranked by the national recruiting services in high school.<br /> <br /> My 13-year-old son was indifferent, in fact was leaning on rooting for Kentucky, when he saw me reacting to every possession.<br /> <br /> “Why do you care so much who wins,” he said. I explained that the Badgers’ style of play was going to be praised and their season really remembered only if they won the game. Otherwise, we were looking at another media lovefest for Kentucky.<br /> <br /> CBS likes Cinderella, but loves Goliath. Big, bad Kentucky. Yeah, that’s the ticket.<br /> <br /> Sure enough, the TV execs got their wish.<br /> <br /> The game was dead-even when Wisconsin guard <strong>Traevon Jackson</strong> managed to draw a foul on a great ball fake, and he hit 2 of 3 free throws. Here comes Kentucky. No timeout by Cal-pal, no hint of a drawn-up play, no pick or cohesive look to the possession. And then, still, heroics.<br /> <br /> With UW well-aligned defensively and nothing brewing, <strong>Aaron Harrison</strong> decided to rise up from 26 feet and see if he could toss in another humongous three as he had done against Louisville and Michigan. He did. Credit to him. But … dammit.<br /> <br /> I flipped on the TV the next morning and actually heard this sentence, more or less, by ESPN’s <strong>Seth Greenberg</strong>: “I know everybody wants to talk about the three-point shot, but in the end Kentucky won this game because of talent. Their X’s were bigger, stronger and better than Wisconsin’s O’s.”<br /> <br /> Huh? I’ve always liked Greenberg as a coach and analyst of the game, but what a ridiculous statement. And how very company of him.<br /> <br /> Of course, Kentucky has more talent. But that’s not why it won the game.<br /> <br /> The Wildcats won because a kid fired a three 6 feet outside the arc in desperation and had his prayer answered. They won by one point. Even Calipari said afterward it was one-possession game that could have gone either way. Sometimes that’s sports. That’s it.<br /> <br /> If you spent time breaking down the play you could maybe fault <strong>Josh Gasser</strong> for not thinking Harrison would try it and have a hand in his face but THE KID MADE A 26-FOOT PULLUP. That’s a low-percentage play no matter what your and bios say about your skills.<br /> <br /> Greenberg used that one play to kick Wisconsin and prop up Kentucky. Hey, UW won’t be on ESPN much next year but Kentucky will be box-office gold on the Mothership as long as Calipari is raiding the top-20 prospect lists.<br /> <br /> So, unfortunately, I was right. Nice try, farmboys. Now go back to plucking cows and practicing your hook shot.<br /> <br /> Big, bad Kentucky. Blah.<br /> <br /> I’ll take the 7-seed.<br /> Jeff Rapp 16c11cc4-dc0d-4124-b9e3-4ba778b186ba Mon, 07 Apr 2014 16:26:27 GMT Washington, Bennett Ready To Anchor Last year, despite troubles on the back end of the defense, Ohio State created havoc up front with a young and talented line.<br /> <br /> With former OSU standout <strong>Mike Vrabel</strong> barking the orders and a wealth of mostly untested warriors up front, the Buckeyes caused foes trouble in the trenches, holding them to 3.3 yards per rush and racking up 42 sacks.<br /> <br /> Defensive linemen accounted for 31 of those sacks and 53 tackles-for-loss.<br /> <br /> And the best news for <strong>Urban Meyer</strong> and OSU fans is that the line returns intact. <strong>Noah Spence</strong>, who missed the Orange Bowl because of a one-game suspension, returns to one end spot intent to make a mark. <strong>Joey Bosa</strong>, who made virtually every freshman All-America team last year, will handle the other side.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, new D-line coach <strong>Larry Johnson</strong> – Vrabel left in the off-season to return to coaching in the NFL – believes former ends <strong>Adolphus Washington</strong> and <strong>Michael Bennett</strong> can thrive on the inside.<br /> <br /> “Inside for good,” Washington said after practice on Thursday when asked where he is working this spring.<br /> <br /> “At first I was kind of nervous and scared about it, but now that I’ve got the whole of it, it’s whatever. You go out there and play.”<br /> <br /> Washington missed a couple games during the 2013 season with nagging injuries but still performed admirably playing all along the line. He finished with 36 tackles, 4.0 for loss, a pair of sacks and two quarterback hurries.<br /> <br /> When asked what concerned him about playing the interior spot known as 3-technique, though, he said, “Honestly, the double teams. Michael Bennett told me about them and he said you’ve got to get your pads low and fire off the ball, so I said, ‘I can do that.’<br /> <br /> “I’ve been doing real good with it this spring, especially going against guys like <strong>Pat Elflein</strong> and <strong>Tommy Brown</strong>. If I can do it against them I know I can do it against anybody.”<br /> <br /> Johnson, the longtime D-line coach at Penn State, agreed.<br /> <br /> “He’s 285, 290 and that’s big enough to play inside,” he said of Washington. “So you take a skill guy that rushed on the edge and then bring him inside to a guard position, it really does give you a different edge on the inside, and that’s why I’m excited about it.<br /> <br /> “He’s got great hips, he can rush the passer, so there should be some great things coming from him.”<br /> <br /> As far as the conversion of Washington being solely inside, Johnson said it was just a matter of communication … and reps.<br /> <br /> “Talk technique to him and show him how to fit the double teams,” he said. “He’s doing a great job so far in spring ball, and as he does it confidence comes.”<br /> <br /> Washington said he is back to 100 percent and willing to do whatever is needed. Bennett, the only senior of the group, feels the same way. He prefers to play outside but knows the Buckeyes have more use for him at nose guard.<br /> <br /> Since he’s played all four spots, Bennett is an ideal mentor for Washington and best understands how thankless the job can be.<br /> <br /> “3-technique is a whole different world than defensive end,” Bennett explained. “You have to have a grittier mind-set in there. You’re always going to get beat up a couple times and you’re going to take on double teams and having two-ways gos and stuff like that.<br /> <br /> “With end you can kind of sit back, beat one guy, read the play and then go get the ball. With 3-technique or nose guard you’ve got to beat two guys and then hope that nobody’s coming across the line of scrimmage to hit you and then try to get to the ball. It’s just different.”<br /> <br /> So how is Washington doing so far?<br /> <br /> “He’s really coming into it this spring,” Bennett, who started all of one game last year at defensive tackle, said of Washington. “He’s blowing through double teams and really starting to control the line of scrimmage.”<br /> <br /> Bennett also was productive last with 42 tackles, 11.5 for loss and seven sacks. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two. Like Washington, he overcame a limiting injury as a sophomore and has endured being moved around up front all while adjusting to different coaching styles.<br /> <br /> For those reasons, Bennett has the respect of his linemates.<br /> <br /> “On the defensive line our leader is Mike Bennett,” Washington said. “If he’s not feeling it that day or he’s in a bad mood I just kind of pick him up so he can pick us up. I want to be the guy who kind of leads by example. Mike’s the vocal leader.”<br /> <br /> Perhaps the most talented of the linemen is Spence, a 6-3, 252-pound junior who arrived with a five-star label and is beginning to live up to the hype.<br /> <br /> Unfortunately, his sophomore season ended on a downer as the Big Ten ruled him out of the bowl game for using a performance-enhancing drug. His family publicly denied any wrongdoing and fought for an overturn but their appeals were not successful.<br /> <br /> “When it first happened he was real down about it,” Washington said of Spence, his roommate and good friend. “Every day he would say something about it. I would try to get him out of the house to get his mind off of it, go get something to eat or go to his cousin’s house and try to do anything to get his mind off of it.<br /> <br /> “Now, he just lets it blow in the wind and doesn’t pay any attention to it. It happened, it was what it was, and now it’s past him.”<br /> <br /> With Spence back in the fold, Ohio State may have the best pass-rush tandem in the Big Ten – and the entire line should be potent.<br /> <br /> At end, Spence (52 tackles, 14.5 for loss, eight sacks) and Bosa (44, 13.5, 7.5) will continue to attack while Bennett and Washington try to tie up the middle of the line. Others will rotate in, of course.<br /> <br /> <strong>Tommy Schutt</strong>, <strong>Jamal Marcus</strong> and <strong>Steve Miller</strong> all have starting experience and figure to see time and the early returns on the young linemen are very encouraging.<br /> <br /> When asked if the expectations should be high for the defensive line this year, Bennett responded with a hearty “yes.”<br /> <br /> “I felt like we were very, very good last year and now you’ve got everybody coming back,” he said. “We’ve got the young guys showing a lot of promise. So we’ve got nine or 10 guys who aren’t just substitutes, who are really good and can start just about anywhere in the country. I feel like we’re really on the right track.”<br /> <br /> <strong>New Man In Charge</strong><br /> <br /> The only hang-up at the moment seems to be the players adjusting to Johnson, who clearly has a different approach than that of the fiery Vrabel.<br /> <br /> “What’s unique about it is he’s always a motivator,” Washington said. “He’s going to tell you what to do and he’s going to show you how to do it and he’s going to motivate you to do it. Instead of just using an angry approach to it he uses more of a teaching approach.<br /> <br /> “We’re still kind of in a building stage. We’re still trying to get to know Coach Johnson and his whole philosophy on how to be a D-lineman. But we’re doing pretty good so far. His big thing is to take no steps back.”<br /> <br /> Bennett, though, sees only one major change.<br /> <br /> “The biggest difference if Coach Johnson doesn’t curse,” he said. “They’ll both yell at you, they’ll both pat you on the back. For the most part they teach you the same stuff. It’s just that Coach Johnson doesn’t curse. Coach Vrabel’s (teachings) had more of an NFL aspect to it. Coach Johnson is more likely to teach you like an 18-year-old while Coach Vrabel treated you like a grown man.<br /> <br /> “I love both coaches but Coach Johnson is going to be good for us.”<br /> <br /> “My style is different; it really is,” said Johnson, who was a renowned high school coach before his 18-year run at Penn State. “I’m a teacher first. And then I’m going to do all the things I can as fast as I can. And I’m telling you these guys are buying into it. Not one guy has questioned what we’ve done, and that’s kind of neat.<br /> <br /> “It’s a trust factor. I tell them all the time once they drink the Kool-Aid we’re ready to go. Right now they’re reaching back, and that’s great to see. They don’t want to be good players, they want to be great players.”<br /> <br /> That leaves just one question: Do the players miss Vrabel’s blue language?<br /> <br /> “It was funny,” Bennett said. “Sometimes it was less funny than others.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 7070ab26-acfe-4558-b61b-036892cd09ea Fri, 28 Mar 2014 19:29:26 GMT Not Ready To Say Goodbye The time is at hand to look ahead to the future of Ohio State basketball – and that future once again is very bright with a top-five class on its way to campus to keep the <strong>Thad Matta</strong> train rolling.<br /> <br /> However, with the NCAA Tournament ongoing and the hurt of OSU’s second-round loss to in-state foe Dayton in Buffalo still stinging, it’s also time to address the wound and reflect – mostly on the outstanding careers of senior guards <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> and <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong><br /> <br /> When asked moments after the 60-59 setback at the hands of the Flyers to look ahead to his role as a senior leader next season, wing <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> said, “I haven’t even thought about that. I’m way more concerned right now with what’s going on in this locker room (at First Niagara Center). We’ve got two great ones who are leaving us and no one wants to accept that.”<br /> <br /> Smith also was having a difficult time coming to grips with what just happened. Craft’s potential game-winning shot rattled out at the buzzer, leaving the sixth-seeded Buckeyes at 25-10 overall, out of the Big Dance, and stunned.<br /> <br /> After a 15-0 start, OSU was a break-even 10-10 – almost every single one of the losses representative of an errant shot or two, a missed opportunity down the stretch, and a lack of execution with the game on the line.<br /> <br /> “You try to say you learn from the mistakes and next time going around you try to make adjustments to not let that happen, but we’ve been in this situation all year,” Smith lamented. “It’s the same thing that got us beat in the loss to Penn State during the season, the same reason why we lost to Indiana, to Michigan last weekend. On these plays, we didn’t do anything we’re supposed to do. I guess we’re missing something.”<br /> <br /> The UD players dog-piled on the court and celebrated long after the one-point win. They gathered themselves well enough, however, to take down Syracuse, the No. 3 seed in the South, Saturday at First Niagara.<br /> <br /> However, none of that is the Buckeyes’ concern anymore. After making it to the Sweet 16, Final Four and Elite Eight in their previous March runs, Craft and Smith made a one-and-done exit that figures to gnaw at them for a long time.<br /> <br /> Craft couldn’t even address a question about his Ohio State legacy when at the dais to answer postgame questions. Meanwhile, Smith still looked dazed in the locker room.<br /> <br /> That left it up to their teammates to comment on just what the two have meant to the program.<br /> <br /> “They help us out a lot, even with the little things – off the court and on the court,” said junior <strong>Shannon Scott</strong>, who will take full control of Craft’s point guard duties next season. “It’s going to be really hard for us to see those guys leave.”<br /> <br /> A product of Zion, Ill., the 6-4 Smith earned his keep quickly at Ohio State and became a mainstay in the backcourt. The physical lefty came up big in the Regional Final win over Syracuse a couple years ago and since then has been a steady force at off-guard as well as a reliable defensive rebounder.<br /> <br /> Craft logged 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in his final contest but was the victim of a game-winning running bank shot by UD’s <strong>Vee Sanford</strong> with 3.8 seconds remaining.<br /> <br /> When asked if Craft should have done anything differently on that fateful possession, Matta said, “Honestly, me telling him how to play defense would be like me telling somebody how to build a rocket ship. I’ll live and die with that kid any day of the year of what he’s going to do defensively.”<br /> <br /> The 6-2 Craft is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and generally was regarded as the best on-ball defender in college basketball for much of his career. In his final home game as a Buckeye, he broke the Big Ten’s all-time mark for career steals.<br /> <br /> A former quarterback as well as hardwood standout at Findlay (Ohio) Liberty Benton, Craft also proved to be an offensive catalyst despite his struggles with his outside shot. He leaves school tops in career assists and also ranks 29th in program history in points with 1,314.<br /> <br /> “The numbers speak for themselves,” Thompson said. “They’re both 1,000-point scorers with a bunch of rebounds and assists and all that. And they are both the second-winningest players in Ohio State history. I’ll remember them as two of my brothers that I loved very much my entire time here, and I wish them the best of luck.”<br /> <br /> Craft, of course, didn’t feel like blowing kisses to the crowd when the horn sounded, but a few minutes later in the locker room he was able to sum up his feelings toward the program.<br /> <br /> “I’ve loved my time here; I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “Obviously this year has been unbelievably up and down and different than every other year that we’ve had, but it’s made me a better player and it’s made me a better person.<br /> <br /> “I’ve been given a phenomenal platform and stage, and the worst thing that I could do and I’ve tried to avoid is taking that for granted.”<br /> <br /> Craft endeared with community outreach, intelligence (he has a 3.9 grade-point average in pre-med and famously can solve a Rubik’s Cube in about a minute) and, of course, his grit and determination on the court.<br /> <br /> Best of all, his hustle wasn’t just for show – it helped the Buckeyes win and win big.<br /> <br /> “He had such an ability, over the course of his four years, to change the tide of a basketball game,” Matta said. “He won 119 games in his career – that’s just short of 30 a year – and so many of those games he won on the defensive end of it.<br /> <br /> “You look at his career and, in my mind, in the 10 years I’ve been at Ohio State he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greatest players ever to put on the scarlet and gray.<br /> <br /> “Obviously, you don’t like this season to end the way it ends, but just that kid has probably meant more to this program than anybody’s ever meant to this program, just in terms of what he has done in his time here.”<br /> <br /> Time to move on? Sure.<br /> <br /> But also time to reflect.<br /> Jeff Rapp 09214d99-5ed7-458e-9181-25777c063dea Mon, 24 Mar 2014 18:41:27 GMT Rapp Around: Craft Can't Be Sole Answer <strong>BUFFALO, N.Y. –</strong> As <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> was facing reporters Sunday night, discussing Ohio State’s just-announced NCAA Tournament draw and coming to the realization that his next college basketball game could very well be his last, a thought crossed over me.<br /> <br /> Actually, two thoughts.<br /> <br /> One, why do we garner so much entertainment and euphoria from an event that actually is filled with so much heartache? And, two, what box was left to be checked on Craft’s March Madness dossier?<br /> <br /> Allow me to attempt to answer my own queries after watching Craft and the Buckeyes ride the emotional teeter-totter in the final seconds of a 60-59 loss to in-state foe Dayton on Thursday.<br /> <br /> First of all, the vast majority of those wrapped into the tournament really have nothing at stake – except maybe $5 and a little office pride.<br /> <br /> The thrill of NCAA victory and the agony of tournament defeat is Romanesque theater to the casual and occasionally obtuse sports fan. It’s not our livelihood and it’s not our lifelong reputation.<br /> <br /> The athletes, meanwhile – student-athletes, if you must – are elated to participate in the spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament and to “shock the world.”<br /> <br /> “Any competitor wants to play against the best and have a chance to prove they’re the best, and this tournament is no different,” said OSU junior forward <strong>Sam Thompson</strong>, who certainly lived up to the moment with a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting.<br /> <br /> So, that means that being on Cloud Nine about taking part in an event in which 67 of the 68 teams go home disappointed lends itself to the idea that there actually is more to gain – the satisfaction of taking that best shot, perhaps.<br /> <br /> Therefore, I asked Thompson if that means he’ll be able to some day look back with affection for the experience of this year’s NCAA Tournament.<br /> <br /> “No,” he said sternly. “I don’t exactly call losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Dayton an experience, so it’s not something I’ll come to grips with. It looked like they wanted it more than us and they played like it.”<br /> <br /> OK, dumb question.<br /> <br /> So I went over to coach <strong>Thad Matta</strong>, who has made a living off of postseason runs, and asked him a different version: “Is this tournament cruel?”<br /> <br /> “It’s the profession,” he said flatly.<br /> <br /> True, but that statement comes for the wisdom of being around this postseason frenzy for two full decades.<br /> <br /> Even a youngster as grounded as Craft has a hard time dealing with such a fate, as evidence by him linking this bitter disappointment to ones of the past when the Buckeyes were dumped from the Sweet 16 (2011), Final Four (2012) and Elite Eight (2013).<br /> <br /> “I’ve lost by nine points total in my four NCAA Tournament losses – two points, two points, four points and now one point,” he said with a pained expression. “Those are all one-possession and two-possession games, and that’s the most frustrating part. We didn’t value possessions early in the game; we didn’t value possessions early in the second half.”<br /> <br /> And because of it, because of Craft’s astute observation that the Buckeyes were simply too casual for extended stretches of the contest with Dayton, the 6-2 senior point guard got to notch one final essential category for postseason drama – missing the game-winning shot at the buzzer.<br /> <br /> This, of course, is unfair even to point out since Craft was a nuisance to UD for much of the afternoon and had just 3.8 seconds to race the other way with the ball after Dayton guard <strong>Vee Sanford</strong> played hero and banked in a runner for the game’s final points.<br /> <br /> However, Sanford did score over Craft, who allowed him to go to his strong hand.<br /> <br /> “I thought we were getting stops when we needed to, then on the last shot the guy made a good play,” OSU’s <strong>LaQuinton Ross</strong> said. “Basically, we were going to switch everything with all guards on the floor. The guy just drove strong right and was able to finish.”<br /> <br /> After Craft failed to answer, he couldn’t lift his body off the First Niagara Center floor for several seconds.<br /> <br /> In the interviews afterward and again in the locker room, his voice shook while trying to address questions.<br /> <br /> But Craft insisted he wasn’t awash in sentimentality about his four-year career and the hurt that accompanied its very sudden end.<br /> <br /> “To be honest with you, I’m more upset we lost the game,” he said. “I’m not upset that I’m done and I’m not upset that I don’t get to play for Ohio State again. I’m angry at myself for letting him get a shot over me with his right hand and not making one more play down the stretch. That’s what hurts right now.<br /> <br /> “It’s done now, and now it’s on these guys to learn from what this season has been and how hard it has been.”<br /> <br /> But what is the lesson other than losing in the final seconds of a single-elimination tournament stings like grabbing an electric fence?<br /> <br /> That was the question for which there really was no answer – at least not from this group and not after a 25-10 campaign that seemed to elicit more head-scratching than back-patting.<br /> <br /> “We put ourselves in a position to win and we couldn’t make the plays down the stretch,” Craft said, his voice trailing off. “They punched more than we did.”<br /> <br /> “I think it’s mostly mental,” added Ross. “We knew Dayton was going to come out with energy and we needed to match it, and I didn’t think we did that.”<br /> <br /> Senior guard <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong> made an even stronger statement.<br /> <br /> “We didn’t come to play today,” he said. “Our coach is trying to fire us up and give us energy in the NCAA Tournament, and they couldn’t do it. You shouldn’t need a coach to fire you up when it can possibly be the last game.”<br /> <br /> Shannon Scott agreed.<br /> <br /> “I feel like if we would have come in with a different mentality it would have been a whole different ballgame,” he said.<br /> <br /> Certainly, the Buckeyes entered with some flaws and as a 6-seed were no guarantee to get by 11th-seeded Dayton (24-10), especially considering the extra incentive the Flyers had playing the big-name in-state school and that leading scorer <strong>Jordan Sibert</strong> is an OSU transfer.<br /> <br /> Still, not being ready to play? That one can’t be explained to the fan base.<br /> <br /> “They deserve an answer,” Craft said. “Nothing is guaranteed, and that’s one of the toughest things to get across to people.”<br /> <br /> Craft has made his share of mistakes this season and some of them came at very inopportune times. Just five days ago in Indianapolis, for example. he was racing upcourt with a chance to fire in a tying three-pointer against rival Michigan and the ball never made it cleanly to his shooting hand, spilling away.<br /> <br /> Unexplainable miscues and painful shortcomings – that would be one way to describe the 2013-14 season.<br /> <br /> But no one could accuse Craft of not understanding the magnitude of the moment and not giving his all.<br /> <br /> Against Dayton he racked up 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals to go along with several dives onto the floor for loose balls.<br /> <br /> It was Craft who scored nine quick points after the Buckeyes fell behind 10-7 and looked lifeless in the game’s first five minutes. It was Craft who gave OSU leads of 22-21, 52-51 and 59-58. And it was Craft who also tied the game at 55 with a huge three-point play with 2:05 to play moments after Sibert canned a trey.<br /> <br /> Still, he was left to be the goat as Sanford attacked him. No one helped defensively. Heck, other than Thompson no one helped offensively. Post men <strong>Amir Williams</strong> and <strong>Trey McDonald</strong> combined to eat a doughnut – no points.<br /> <br /> Ross had 10 points but was just 2 of 7 in the first half and sulked around on defense. Smith finished with just six points and three rebounds.<br /> <br /> However, Dayton didn’t have a single player with more than a dozen points and was a middling 22 of 40 (44.9 percent) from the field.<br /> <br /> The real difference seemed to be in effort plays – or lack thereof – and, as often was the case this season, empty possessions down the stretch.<br /> <br /> “I don’t know what it is,” Thompson whispered. “These are the games where we had to find a way to win and we didn’t, and it cost us our season.”<br /> <br /> Added Smith, “We get super close and we can’t close it out because we’re not tough enough. The season definitely shouldn’t have ended this way. We allowed it to happen because we couldn’t answer the call.”<br /> Jeff Rapp 6f2b961a-1ff7-44c4-940f-e9f5f48406e0 Fri, 21 Mar 2014 00:31:35 GMT The New King At SVSM Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, no stranger to athletic success, again boasts one of the top teams in Ohio and could very well cut down the nets at the Schottenstein Center this weekend in celebration of another state title.<br /> <br /> And if that happens, the dominance of the Fighting Irish will be only part of the story.<br /> <br /> That’s because for the first time since a guy named <strong>LeBron James</strong> led SVSM to basketball glory at the beginning of the millennium, the school is home to one of the most gifted wing players in the entire country.<br /> <br /> His name is <strong>VJ King</strong>, and he’s a marvel. Already a legitimate 6-7 and still only a sophomore, King is not quite as good as King James – who is? – but he possesses a fluid and pretty much unstoppable floor game.<br /> <br /> SVSM has advanced to the Division II state semifinals in Columbus and is the favorite to win another crown despite arriving with nine losses, the most of any of the 16 boys teams still playing.<br /> <br /> Head coach <strong>Dru Joyce</strong> accepts the blame for the 19-9 record since he scheduled several games against national competition, mostly to showcase King. Some of the losses also are a result of King missing the first half of the season with a fractured wrist.<br /> <br /> But King is all healed and ready to put on a show in the state tournament, which concluded Saturday with championships in all four divisions.<br /> <br /> In one particularly noteworthy contest back in January, the Irish showed they were a true Midwest power team by posting an 89-78 win over the University Pioneers of Normal, Ill., at Flyin’ To The Hoop in Dayton. In that game, King was matched with Ohio State signee <strong>Keita Bates-Diop</strong>, also a 6-7 forward, and made an impression.<br /> <br /> Bates-Diop put on a splendid show for the OSU fans in attendance with four made threes in the first period, 31 points and 10 rebounds (for a look at his performance, click <a href="">HERE</a>).<br /> <br /> However, King matched him with 30 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. He was 9 of 18 from the field, 10 of 11 from the free-throw line and looked comfortable throughout as the Irish romped.<br /> <br /> “He’s very good,” Bates-Diop said afterward of King. “He’s only a sophomore and he’s very smooth with the ball. He plays more mature than he really is. He plays like a senior. If you didn’t know, you’d think he was.<br /> <br /> “He’s a great player. He can shoot and do a lot of different things.”<br /> <br /> King returned the compliment and also labeled Bates-Diop “a great player.”<br /> <br /> “Just before the game he just told me to slow down and let the game come to me, and that’s what I did,” said King, who also faced Bates-Diop in his first varsity appearance last season. “We have similar games, so we were talking throughout the game. He really gave us tough matchups out there and we threw a whole bunch of people at him.<br /> <br /> “We didn’t really shut him down but we got the win. That’s all that matters. We knew the offense was going to be there, and my shot was hitting tonight, so it was a good team win for us.”<br /> <br /> Bates-Diop hinted he wouldn’t mind being a teammate with King some day.<br /> <br /> “He’s not a selfish player,” he said. “He’s a good guy. I’d love playing with him. We talked a little out on the court, but I’m trying to win, he’s trying to win, so we didn’t talk a whole bunch.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Thad Matta</strong> is trying to make that happen, of course. King and AAU teammate 6-5 guard <strong>Luke Kennard</strong> of Franklin, Ohio, are priority recruits for Ohio State, but King, who is ranked sixth nationally in the 2016 class, it <em>the</em> priority.<br /> <br /> King already has a boatload of offers from all over the country. Ohio State is trying to fend off Big Ten brethren Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa along with the likes of Arizona, Georgetown, UConn, Iowa State and Cincinnati. Those who follow the situation closely also believe Duke and North Carolina will get involved and could vault right to the forefront.<br /> <br /> But, of course, most who know King would love him to become a Buckeye.<br /> <br /> “Ohio State is a great program,” Joyce said. “Thad has done a great job. But there’s no pressure. That’s just the reality of college basketball. We have a great program here in the state. I’d love for him to stay in Ohio but that’s their family decision and I’m going to leave that up to them.”<br /> <br /> King said his father his handling his recruiting for now and he hasn’t bothered to whittle his list much.<br /> <br /> “I really don’t have favorites out there,” he said. “I didn’t really watch college basketball until my seventh- or eighth-grade year.<br /> <br /> “I couldn’t tell you (which school is in the lead), to be honest with you. I’m focusing on my game and trying to finish high school.”<br /> <br /> King, though, admits he is aware the spotlight is beginning to shine on him.<br /> <br /> “It’s pressure because of who I am, and you all know who went to this school before I did,” he said. “There’s definitely pressure, but I try not to focus on that and I try to work on my game and do whatever I can to win.<br /> <br /> “I haven’t really talked to (James) about college. He just talked to me about my high school career. He just told me to start a new chapter and just play my game, and that’s just what I’ve been doing.”<br /> <br /> Added Joyce, “We tell him to control what he can control, and that’s the basketball. We can’t control what you guys (in the media) do. That’s what I told LeBron and that’s how we went about it back then. Just control what you can control with your attitude and your effort.<br /> <br /> “Hey everybody’s in your face now, but if you trip up they’re going to be gone.”<br /> <br /> While he handles the microscope that comes with being a top recruit, King also is tasked with doing what James did before him, which is make the Fighting Irish a state superpower once again. However, he knows that doesn't happen overnight, or with just one person taking all the key shots.<br /> <br /> “We’ve gotten closer together, we’ve got more chemistry and we like playing with each other more," he said. "I’m more comfortable with this team and the coaches are really trusting my game now. So I feel I’ve grown a lot and the coaches are helping me progress my game.”<br /> <br /> Part of that trust and progression simply has come from Joyce allowing King to explore all he can do on the court, which appears to be just about everything.<br /> <br /> “The offense is kind of wipe open,” Joyce said. “Like I used to say with ’Bron is ‘Look, if you guys guard, if you defend, I’m going to give you a lot of freedom. I’m not going to try to chain you down to run a whole bunch of sets. I’m going to let you play. But you’ve got to guard.’ ”<br /> <br /> King appears to be garnering the concept. He’s also showing an aptitude for time-and-score situations and when to take a higher percentage shot. In the matchup with Bates-Diop, he already had hurt University with long-range jumpers, drive and free throws, but when the game tightened he created offense out of the low post.<br /> <br /> “That’s him understanding,” Joyce said excitedly. “That’s the basketball IQ.<br /> <br /> “People forget. When we needed a basket, LeBron got his butt down in the post and went to work. So I’ve told him, ‘You’re 6-7. When I need one, it doesn’t have to be from beyond the three-point line. Go get me one.’ And that’s what he’s understanding: The more things you add to your game, the tougher it is to guard you.<br /> <br /> “And by the time he’s a senior, look out.”<br /> Jeff Rapp 81578454-eef7-4ea9-8c3a-cf47944a48ef Wed, 19 Mar 2014 19:40:31 GMT Numbers, Geography Don't Matter It’s funny how this Mach madness stuff works out.<br /> <br /> Had Ohio State beaten Michigan in Saturday’s semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes likely would have secured a 5-seed, maybe even a 4, in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Tuesday.<br /> <br /> They also might be packing for Spokane or San Diego, which are three time zones away.<br /> <br /> Instead, Ohio State (25-9), which failed to make it to the BTT finals for the first time in six years, fell to a 6-seed and was placed in the loaded South Region of the NCAA field of 68.<br /> <br /> However, the Buckeyes also ended up in the best possible geographic shape as they will face in-state foe Dayton (23-10) in a 6-11 game in Buffalo on Thursday (12:15 Eastern, CBS).<br /> <br /> Granted, Buffalo is no San Diego when it comes to climate and aesthetics, but the Buckeyes will take it.<br /> <br /> “I thought we’d be a 5,” OSU coach <strong>Thad Matta</strong> told reporters moments after finding out his team’s position in the bracket. “As many Big Ten teams that get in, how it was explained to me, we might have gotten bumped, which is fine.”<br /> <br /> Plus, the Buckeyes claim they will be just as motivated as before even though the program has advanced to the Sweet 16 as a 1- or 2-seed the past three years.<br /> <br /> “We know whatever seed we get, wherever we’re placed in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no such thing as an easy game, there’s no such thing as an easy opponent,” junior swingman <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> said. “We have to bring our best basketball for 40 minutes if we want to have success in the tournament. Whether we have a 2 next to our name or a 6 next to our name that doesn’t change.”<br /> <br /> Perhaps more eyebrow-raising than OSU’s position and seeding is the second-round – the play-in games in Dayton now comprise the first round – opponent that awaits. Dayton received an at-large bid for the first time since 2009 and enters the tourney a confident team.<br /> <br /> The Flyers have won 10 of their last 12 games against competition in the Atlantic 10 – a conference, like the Big Ten, that is sending six teams to the Big Dance. In fact, the only team to defeat UD since Jan. 25 is A-10 tournament champion St. Joseph’s.<br /> <br /> The last time Ohio State faced Dayton was in the 2008 NIT quarterfinals. The Buckeyes dealt with a pesky Flyers team and hordes of UD fans but won that contest at the Schottenstein Center, 74-63, to advance to New York City. OSU ended up winning the event – and has been back in the NCAA Tournament every year following.<br /> <br /> “I think for this team it’s a great thing,” Matta said of his Buckeyes drawing Dayton, “and I say that because there won’t need to be a wakeup call, a ‘Who is this? Where are they? What conference is this? I haven’t heard of that guy’ or any of that. So I like that from that perspective.”<br /> <br /> On the other hand …<br /> <br /> “My first initial reaction was I was so excited to see Dayton up there, because I wanted Arch (coach <strong>Archie Miller</strong>) to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Matta said. “Then it was like, ‘uhh, here we go.’ ”<br /> <br /> Matta well recalls that the 2007 run to the Final Four and last year’s Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona included battles with his best friend, <strong>Sean Miller</strong>, who replaced him as the head coach at Xavier in 2004 when he came to Columbus. Sean and Archie are brothers and each has worked directly with Matta – Sean at Miami (Ohio) and Xavier and Archie at OSU.<br /> <br /> In fact, Archie Miller was a Matta assistant at OSU in 2007-08 and, ironically, helped scout the Flyers before the Buckeyes faced them in the 2008 NIT.<br /> <br /> “It’s funny because we talk all the time,” Matta said. “It’s a little like playing Arizona last year. He knows a lot about my team; I know a lot about his team.”<br /> <br /> Matta also has experience facing an in-state foe in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes had to get by Cincinnati two years ago in the Sweet 16 and followed that with a win over Syracuse to advance to the 2012 Final Four.<br /> <br /> Matta shrugged about the matchup then and is shrugging now.<br /> <br /> “No matter who you play in the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to be a really, really good basketball team,” he said. “The fact that we’re playing a team an hour away five hours away, it’s kind of irrelevant to me. Eventually it all kind of comes full circle.”<br /> <br /> Still, the subplots persist. Dayton assistant <strong>Kevin Kuwik</strong> also once served under Matta at OSU. Plus, the Flyers are led by 6-4 guard <strong>Jordan Sibert</strong>, who was a prominent member of the 2010 recruiting class along with <strong>Jared Sullinger</strong>, <strong>Deshaun Thomas</strong>, <strong>J.D. Weatherspoon</strong> and current OSU seniors <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> and <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong><br /> <br /> A former prep star at Cincinnati Princeton, Sibert transferred after two somewhat underwhelming seasons at OSU, sat out last season, and is now Dayton’s top scorer at 12.5 points per game. He also is one of the A-10’s top three-point shooters at 43.9 percent from behind the arc.<br /> <br /> Craft said he still keeps in touch with Sibert, who also was his AAU backcourt mate. Smith, meanwhile, knows the media will play up a rivalry between him and the UD off-guard.<br /> <br /> When a reporters asked him is he expected Sibert to be extra motivated Thursday, Smith said, “Trying to put myself in his shoes, absolutely. But at the same time we’re both in the same boat – you lose, you go home.”<br /> <br /> If there was animosity between the two, Smith didn’t address it.<br /> <br /> “We were brothers, we were teammates,” he said. “We had support for each other in hard times. I guess things really didn’t pan out for him as well as it did for me. I guess I was just the fortunate one to get that starting position and remain here and play. Then again, I’m pretty sure he’s pretty happy with what he did with his decision and he’s looking forward to playing us.”<br /> <br /> Added Matta, “When he left he said, ‘Look, I want to play a lot,’ and he’s definitely doing that and he’s having a great career there. I’m one of these guys that as long as everybody’s happy in terms of where they are and what they’re doing, I’m happy for them.”<br /> <br /> Sibert, though, is no one-man show. <strong>Devin Oliver</strong>, a 6-7 senior forward, is logging 12.1 points and 7.5 rebounds a game for UD while 6-6 <strong>Dyshawn Pierre</strong> is at 11.1 ppg and 5.6 rpg. <strong>Vee Sanford</strong>, a 6-4 senior guard, is yet another threat (9.9 ppg).<br /> <br /> If the Buckeyes can survive their 10th all-time meeting with Dayton, they will play the winner of the Syracuse-Western Michigan 3-14 game Saturday in Buffalo. That means the strong possibility of another important encounter with the Orange and <strong>Jim Boeheim</strong>’s vaunted zone defense – with less than two days of preparation.<br /> <br /> “I just hope I see it,” Matta said.<br /> <br /> Two wins in Buffalo would mean a trip to Memphis but could set up contests with the likes of Kansas and Florida.<br /> <br /> Daunting as that may be, Matta believes lots of team’s have a sporting chance to make the Final Four this year.<br /> <br /> “I don’t know if you have that one dominant team where you say, ‘They should win the national championship,’ ” he said. “Wichita State obviously is undefeated, Florida is rolling, Arizona is very, very talented as well. I haven’t seen Virginia but they must be playing well. I think the tournament is wide open.<br /> <br /> “I still can’t get over that a guy is willing to pay a billion dollars if somebody gets it right. It must be pretty up in the air. You’re going to see some crazy things.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 723137a2-3586-45df-897c-771fd79001ef Tue, 18 Mar 2014 04:27:14 GMT Another Comeback, But An Exit On Saturday at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, a few trends continued for the Ohio State men’s basketball team as it tangled with rival Michigan in the first semifinal.<br /> <br /> For example, the fifth-seeded Buckeyes again dug themselves a deep hole and again they returned to the hardwood at Bankers Life Fieldhouse despite the deficit. <strong>LaQuinton Ross</strong> led the way offensively and, as was the case in Friday’s win over Nebraska, an unlikely surge of production came from a reserve.<br /> <br /> Now for the bad news (and form-breakers): Ohio State lost to the Wolverines for the first time in seven league tournament matchups with UM. Also, OSU failed to advance from the semifinals to the Sunday final for the first time in the 10-year era of coach <strong>Thad Matta</strong>.<br /> <br /> After failing behind 15-2 in the early going and as much as 16 points (32-16), the Buckeyes rallied to take a brief lead and continued to look like a team of destiny. But top-seeded Michigan made a couple more key plays down the stretch to post a 72-69 victory.<br /> <br /> No. 8 UM (25-7) survived and earned a date with in-state foe Michigan State, the 3-seed, in the championship. The No. 24 Buckeyes (25-9) failed to make the BTT finale for the first time in six years, but Matta still found the positive.<br /> <br /> “We’re a better basketball team today than we were when we got here,” he said. “I think some guys showed they can make plays when they need to make plays.”<br /> <br /> The 6-8 Ross certainly was one of them. He had 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds in OSU’s 63-61 survival against 12th-seeded Purdue on Thursday and followed up with a career-best 26 points and 13 rebounds in the quarterfinal clash with Nebraska, a 71-67 win.<br /> <br /> On Saturday, Ross brought it again with 19 points and six boards, although he missed all five of his three-point attempts. <br /> <br /> Wing <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong> struggled mightily with just thee points and a 1-for-7 shooting day but backup guard <strong>Shannon Scott</strong> picked up the slack much the way <strong>Amedeo Della Valle</strong> did the previous day. The speedy junior riddled Michigan with 18 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals.<br /> <br /> “Shannon was tremendous,” Matta said. “I thought his shot preparation and what he was doing on the court was huge. He got us back in the basketball game.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Nik Stauskas</strong> had 18 points and <strong>Caris LeVert</strong> had 17 to lead the Wolverines, who won for the seventh straight time. UM also got 11 points from <strong>Glenn Robinson III</strong> and eight from center <strong>Jordan Morgan</strong>.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes did a much better job on the boards than they did in the 70-60 home loss to the Wolverines, holding a 31-26 edge there, and were a respectable 7 of 19 from long range (36.8 percent) and 27 of 56 from the field overall (48.2 percent). They also committed just 11 turnovers.<br /> <br /> Still, considering the deep-shooting show the Wolverines put on, it’s hard to believe the Buckeyes still had a chance until <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> lost control of a three-point pull-up just before the buzzer.<br /> <br /> Michigan nailed six of its first eight shots from behind the arc and finished 12 of 23 (52.3 percent).<br /> <br /> But a day after crawling out of a 48-30 chasm against Nebraska the Buckeyes again showed the heart and grit necessary to put suspense back into the ballgame. In fact, they grabbed a lead of 61-60 with 7:57 to play when <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> threw down a patented alley-oop dunk and also led 68-65 with 4:12 on the game clock.<br /> <br /> Michigan cut the Ohio State lead to 68-67 on an 18-foot jumper from Stauskas, the recently named Big Ten Player of the Year, and retook the lead for good when Robinson made two free throws with 2:55 to play.<br /> <br /> UM owned a 71-68 lead when Ross drew a foul but only made 1 of 2 at the free-throw line.<br /> <br /> Michigan’s <strong>Spike Albrecht</strong> had a chance to ice the win with 6.2 seconds left but after making his first free throw – and a timeout – he missed the second.<br /> <br /> Craft grabbed the defensive rebound and raced the other way through the middle of the floor. He appeared to have enough control and room to launch a three from the top of the key but lost the ball while going into his shooting motion.<br /> <br /> The Wolverines came up with the loose ball and Stauskas threw down a one-handed slam after time had expired for an exclamation point. UM advanced to the BTT final for the first time since the initial tournament in 1998. The Wolverines won that event but the title has since been vacated because of NCAA rules.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes put together a 21-9 run to produce a manageable halftime deficit of 41-37 but Michigan started the second half like it did the first and quickly up the lead to 54-42.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes used a 9-2 spurt to get within 56-51 and also put together a 10-2 run to take the lead mainly with Craft on the bench with four fouls.<br /> <br /> Still, it wasn’t enough this time.<br /> <br /> When reminded his team would at least get an extra day of rest for not making it to Sunday – which would have meant a record 13th BTT game for Craft and Smith – Matta shrugged at the notion.<br /> <br /> “We’ve played 21 straight games (against Big Ten teams) and the last four games have gone down to the horn,” he said. “That can really take a toll on a team.<br /> <br /> “Still, I’d probably rather have the exhaustion.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 4357e465-ffaf-4d04-a7b9-192408327abf Sun, 16 Mar 2014 21:52:41 GMT What Just Happened? <strong>INDIANAPOLIS –</strong> As his Buckeyes continued to sputter and Nebraska built a second-half lead of 18 points in the second quarterfinal Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, <strong>Thad Matta</strong> often turned to his assistants and offered a “what else” look of bewilderment.<br /> <br /> After the game – which included an epic comeback by No. 24 Ohio State and a hard-to-explain 71-67 win by the 5-seed over the 4-seed – the 10-year OSU head coach was asked what was entering his mind.<br /> <br /> “How long does it take to get back to Columbus?” he replied.<br /> <br /> The fan version of that may have been, “Where’s the remote?’<br /> <br /> In reality, though, Matta never was going to give up on a team, flawed as it is, that has never given up on him this season.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes (25-8) fell out of the top five of the polls and Big Ten contention after a 15-0 start, but none of their league losses was by more than 10 points.<br /> <br /> Plus, the Buckeyes had rallied feverishly in a December win over Notre Dame in New York City, sent the game to overtime and nearly won at Michigan State after trailing by 17 points with seven minutes to play, and completely turned it around in several other contests including a home win over Minnesota last month.<br /> <br /> The outlook against Nebraska, though, may have been the most bleak of all. Looking to secure an NCAA Tournament bid and continue their torrid play of the last few weeks, the Cornhuskers (19-12) grabbed a 31-28 halftime lead and ballooned it to 48-30 with 13:45 to play.<br /> <br /> “The way we closed out the first half, the way we started the second half, was bad,” Matta understated. “I gauge that by three fouls in the first two minutes and 10 seconds of the half, the missed free throws, those types of things.<br /> <br /> “But these guys stayed together, they fought, they clawed and found ways to pick up the defensive intensity. The greatest thing is everyone of those guys who made those mistakes played their way out of it, and that was the difference in the game.”<br /> <br /> One of the culprits/heroes was junior forward <strong>LaQuinton Ross</strong>, who was whistled for a technical foul after shoving a ’Husker and was contributing to a turnover-plagued first half.<br /> <br /> He ended up with game highs of 26 points and 13 rebounds to outduel Big Ten leading scorer <strong>Terran Petteway</strong>, who fouled out with 20 points and five boards.<br /> <br /> OSU’s second-leading scorer, amazingly, was sophomore guard <strong>Amedeo Della Valle</strong>, who finished with 12 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals – all of them seemingly vital.<br /> <br /> Matta stuck with a five-guard lineup and played Della Valle 16 minutes in the second half yet could have pulled him after the youngster missed a pair of free throws.<br /> <br /> Point guard <strong>Aaron Craft</strong>, who embodies OSU’s guttiness, was just 2 of 7 from the field but finished with six points, six rebounds and six assists. He also came up big in the final minutes.<br /> <br /> And <strong>Shannon Scott</strong>, dismal in the first half with four turnovers, suddenly tortured Nebraska during the frantic rally. He logged nine points, four rebounds and five assists.<br /> <br /> Even with so many players suddenly finding their game, the sellout crowd still was left with mouths agape as the scarlet-clad Buckeyes ripped off a 41-19 closing salvo.<br /> <br /> How could that have just happened? And why are the Buckeyes never out of a game?<br /> <br /> “It’s a combination of a things,” junior <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> explained. “I think, one, we’re just a tough group of guys. We have a lot of pride in what’s across our chest and what this program is about. And we know that we’re never going to give up on a game.<br /> <br /> “We’re confident. We’ve been down eight with 50-some seconds left vs. Notre Dame. We were way down at the Breslin Center vs. Michigan State. We didn’t win that game but we were right there. We had a shot in regulation to win it and a shot in overtime to win it.<br /> <br /> “We know that no lead is insurmountable and we can always come back as long as we do what we do.”<br /> <br /> Added senior <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong>, who ceded his spot to Della Valle the majority of the second half, “It was a team win. We fought to the end and guys out there on the floor got energy from the bench. We fell apart momentarily but from that point we rallied as a team and drew a line in the sand.”<br /> <br /> That line looked nearly pointless when the Cornhuskers appear to gain total control of the contest minutes into the second half.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes shot 50.0 percent in the first half but trailed at the break thanks to nine turnovers and a 1-for-8 showing from behind the arc.&nbsp; Despite a very sloppy start to the second half, a basket by Ross kept the deficit manageable at 36-30.<br /> <br /> That’s when NU posted a 12-0 surge to open up a 48-30 lead. In that stretch, OSU missed three layups and a tip-in attempt, committed a pair of turnovers and also committed five fouls including Ross’ technical.<br /> <br /> Petteway made the two free throws, <strong>Benny Parker</strong> added a basket and Petteway dropped home two more freebies after the shove to push the lead to 18.<br /> <br /> That’s when the Buckeyes woke up and cranked up their fullcourt pressure with aplomb.<br /> <br /> “It was kind of like an NBA game where a player or coach gets fired up, you get a technical and then you start rallying around it,” Craft said. “I don’t condone that. I’m pretty sure we got down 16 from it, so you don’t want that to happen. But if it works out, it works out.”<br /> <br /> Ross actually started the comeback by splashing a three to cut the lead to 48-33.<br /> <br /> “That play was over,” he said of the T. “I wasn’t thinking about that play again. I looked up and saw the score and knew how bad we were down. We just had to get some motivation to come back in that game.”<br /> <br /> The turnaround came from fierce defense.<br /> <br /> “If you’re down 18 and trade buckets, it doesn’t do us much good,” Thompson said. “We had to get some stops and get ourselves going.”<br /> <br /> Many of those key defensive possessions came with Craft and Scott in the backcourt, Smith on the wing, the 6-5 Della Valle at power forward and the 6-7 Thompson at center.<br /> <br /> “We’ve never done that, but it was time to play,” Thompson said. “There’s really no time to ask questions at that point in the game. You’ve got to find a way to get it done.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Shavon Shields</strong> had 12 points for Nebraska but just four in the second half. <strong>Ray Gallegos</strong> had eight points by halftime and a doughnut thereafter.<br /> <br /> Della Valle allowed OSU to switch easier on the perimeter and he also managed to affect the Cornhuskers in the open court.<br /> <br /> His defensive rebound and coast-to-coast drive cut the lead to 48-37 and moments later he provided a steal and a another hanging basket to make it 48-39.<br /> <br /> A dunk by Thompson with 4:39 to play trimmed it to 58-56 but <strong>Walter Pitchford</strong>, who hurt OSU with three treys and 15 points, made a 21-footer from the top of the key for a 61-56 edge.<br /> <br /> Della Valle responded with consecutive blocked shots and three-point to pull OSU back to within a hoop at 63-61. He added four made free throws in the final 12 seconds, providing the Buckeyes with a four-point lead each time.<br /> <br /> “He’s a gamer,” Craft said. “He’s done a phenomenal job of just humbling himself and waiting for his opportunity, and he took advantage today. That’s what we see in practice on a daily basis.”<br /> <br /> “Amedeo is a great player, man,” Ross added. “You can see what he did in the summertime over there in his league (in Italy), winning MVP and he won a championship. He plays with a swag. I don’t know, it’s something about his body. He’s able to do some stuff that I didn’t think he was supposed to do.”<br /> <br /> Della Valle drew a horde of reporters afterward but shrugged at the idea of being an impact player.<br /> <br /> “Really my confidence doesn’t go down,” he said. “I know the player I can be even though sometimes I don’t show it on the court. I know what I do in practice and how hard I work.”<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, Ross scored in double figures for the 15th time in his last 17 games and set a new career high.<br /> <br /> “He’s been great,” Della Valle said. “He’s been good for us, scoring the ball when we need him to, even playing defense. I think he’s really stepping up.”<br /> <br /> With the win, OSU improved to 21-5 at the Big Ten Tournament in the Matta era and will move on to face rival Michigan in the first semifinal on Saturday afternoon (1:40 p.m. Eastern, CBS). The top-seeded Wolverines 24-7 also had a fright but edged 9-seed Illinois 64-63.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes will be playing on the third consecutive day but are used to such challenges. Smith and Craft, for example, will be playing in their 12th BTT game and figure to have some fight left in them.<br /> <br /> “It’s Michigan,” Smith said. “There’s no other team we’ll pull together and have energy for more than those guys. They’re just as good as anyone in the country and we’re looking forward to it.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 52eac3fe-b8a1-4931-b2be-94510c464e88 Sat, 15 Mar 2014 01:12:35 GMT Q On One End, Lenzelle On The Other <strong>INDIANAPOLIS –</strong> You can’t put lipstick on a pig but sometimes you’ve got to use that swine to get you from point A to point B – like from Thursday to Friday.<br /> <br /> The 24th-ranked Ohio State basketball team did basically that on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, edging league bottom feeder Purdue 63-61 in the 5-12 game to advance to the quarterfinals.<br /> <br /> For the Buckeyes (24-8), the victory even counts as momentum considering they came up with a bevy of key defensive stops in a 69-67 regular-season-ending win over Michigan State on Sunday and that they dropped their share of tight contests during the conference season.<br /> <br /> “It’s another ugly game that we’ve found ourselves in, and we’ve been in quite a few this year,” point guard <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> said. “It’s nice to find a way to win one.”<br /> <br /> Like on Sunday, the blueprint centered on the defensive end of the court. The Buckeyes trailed for much of the second half and never led by more than five points down the stretch but came up with clutch plays while digging in on defense.<br /> <br /> After PU’s <strong>Kendall Stephens</strong> nailed a three to tie the score at 54 with 6:06 to play, the Boilermakers (15-17) made just 2 of 6 shots and committed four turnovers, many of them under intense pressure.<br /> <br /> Still, they stayed right in the fray with four players in double figures and pivot <strong>A.J. Hammons</strong> adding nine rebounds and five blocked shots to his team-high 15 points.<br /> <br /> “They got experienced guards, guys who attack you, they’ve got Stephens knocking down all kinds of shots, and A.J. Hammons is always a load and always gives us trouble, so it’s not your typical 12-seed,” OSU junior <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> said.<br /> <br /> “They’re a not a team that you can just brush over. You’ve got to go out and beat them. It wasn’t pretty but we got it done – but this is definitely the last game we can come out and play like this and win in March.”<br /> <br /> Certainly the path tightens quickly. Fifth-seeded Ohio State, playing on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since <strong>Thad Matta</strong>’s initial season as coach (2004-05), next faces 4-seed Nebraska (19-11) on Friday (approx. 2:30 Eastern, ESPN).<br /> <br /> The Cornhuskers, who went 11-7 in the Big Ten regular season after most experts picked them to finish dead-last, are on top of their game and coming off a huge home win over Wisconsin.<br /> <br /> Ohio State might not be able to match their firepower but has a hot hand in forward <strong>LaQuinton Ross</strong>, who notched his fifth career double-double with 19 points and a career-best 15 rebounds vs. the Boilermakers.<br /> <br /> Ross was not incredibly efficient – he was 8 of 21 from the field – but he held up through 37 bruising minutes of court time and befuddled Purdue.<br /> <br /> “I’ve got to give him credit, he kept playing today,” Matta said. “If he thought something should have been called, he kept playing, he stuck with it, and really had a heck of a game.”<br /> <br /> Ross spun, drop-stepped and twisted into traffic to flip and float up soft attempts in the lane. He also took a three in the second half just to keep the Boilers honest.<br /> <br /> “Finding different ways to score is what I do, so that’s always been a part of my game,” said the gangly 6-8 junior. “I’m fine either way, as long as the ball goes in the hole. That just shows my versatility being able to go outside to shoot the three or down in the paint to handle what I can.”<br /> <br /> Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Ross was up to the task of scoring down low on a day when they were a miserable 1 of 14 from behind the arc.<br /> <br /> “When you’re having quote-unquote one of those days, you’ve got to find ways to generate points and today Q was a great generator of productivity for us,” Matta said.<br /> <br /> However, Purdue actually outscored the Buckeyes in the paint, 42-36, thanks in large part to the yeoman work of 7-foot, 251-pound Hammons, who continued to create problems for OSU.<br /> <br /> “That’s a big dude,” Ross said. “He’s in the paint disturbing shots or blocking shots and he takes up a lot of space.”<br /> <br /> Hammons came into the game with 29 points and 23 rebounds in two regular-season contests with the Buckeyes and did more damage in perhaps his last game as a collegian. The sophomore is contemplating whether or not to seek early entry into the NBA draft.<br /> <br /> Craft was able to offset Hammons with 16 points and added two rebounds, five assists and three steals.<br /> <br /> Perhaps the top performer of the outing, though, was senior backcourt mate <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong> Even though he didn’t have a made field goal in the second half, his defensive prowess and three made free throws were the difference.<br /> <br /> With OSU trying to protect a 62-60 lead, Smith broke up a handoff to PU guard <strong>Terone Johnson</strong> and zipped the other way with the ball. He was fouled with 5.1 seconds and made 1 of 2 free throws.<br /> <br /> “I hit the ball and he bobbled it,” Smith explained. “In my mind it was ‘ go score,’ but I remember what happened to us at Wisconsin, so it was ‘slow down, get fouled, make the free throws.’<br /> <br /> “That’s big-time right there. Any time you get a stop you want to capitalize off of that. It takes the gusto away from teams.”<br /> <br /> Earlier, after Craft kept alive a key possession by stealing the ball from Hammons on his way down with a rebound, Smith had fought his way for position for an offensive rebound of a missed three by Thompson and drew a foul on <strong>Errick Peck</strong>. He made both free throws with 28 seconds remaining to push the OSU lead to 61-58.<br /> <br /> After Smith provided the 63-60 lead, Matta elected to have <strong>Shannon Scott</strong> purposely foul <strong>Ronnie Johnson</strong> with 2.7 seconds remaining, a tactic that nearly backfired.<br /> <br /> Ronnie Johnson made the first free throw, purposely missed the second, and, after officials checked the monitor for several minutes, ruled the ball went off Smith’s fingertips.<br /> <br /> “That was a great call,” Smith said. “They got that one right.”<br /> <br /> Purdue coach <strong>Matt Painter</strong> called timeout and drew up a potential winning play as Terone Johnson found himself lining up a three with a tick to go. Smith swerved around Hammons to fly out on the shot, which was on line but short.<br /> <br /> “In my history here I think that was just as good a screen as any,” Smith said. “Hammons, obviously, is huge, and at that point I had a decision to stay on the screen and call for help or try to fight around it as much as possible.”<br /> <br /> He chose correctly and again was a difference-maker.<br /> <br /> “Those are game-winning plays, and that’s exactly what we need this time of year,” Craft said.<br /> <br /> “He turned it around,” Matta added when asked about Smith. “He was not very good in the first half and to his credit he played a lot better basketball in the second half.”<br /> <br /> Matta subbed in <strong>Amedeo Della Valle</strong> with 12:05 to play and left the sophomore on the floor until the 7:16 mark, allowing Smith to be fresh for the stretch.<br /> <br /> It turned out the Buckeyes needed every ounce of that energy just to survive.<br /> <br /> “You don’t come into these games expecting it to be easy,” Craft said. “Anything worth having you’ve got to work for.”<br /> <br /> Matta improved to 20-5 in the Big Ten Tournament, which is the best record by any coach in the history of the event, and many of the victories were pre-weekend squeakers like this one.<br /> <br /> “Despite how we played this game we know our main goal was to find a way to win, so we’re satisfied,” Scott said. “There’s not enough time to dwell on how we played today. That would affect us the rest of the tournament.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 102cd8f0-5111-43cf-aed1-106255da2b1c Fri, 14 Mar 2014 01:17:42 GMT Look Out, Indy -- Matta's Back If any of the 12 member institutions have an intimidation edge heading to the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis this week, it could be argued that it is Ohio State.<br /> <br /> No, the Buckeyes did not mop up the league and win the regular-season crown as in some recent years. And, no, OSU is not the hottest team in the Midwest right now.<br /> <br /> Far from it.<br /> <br /> However, the Buckeyes still have <strong>Thad Matta</strong> as their coach and his success at this time of year is, well, staggering.<br /> <br /> In Matta’s 10 seasons at the helm of the program, the Buckeyes are a very robust 54-14 in March, which equates to a winning percentage a shade below 80. No OSU team under his watch has lost more than two games in the most crucial month of college basketball and his teams simply find a way in the postseason.<br /> <br /> The Big Ten Tournament, for example, has been a playground for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have advanced to Sunday’s tournament final five years in a row and are the defending champs after cutting down the nets at Chicago’s United Center last year.<br /> <br /> This time the tourney returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Buckeyes reigned in 2010 – who can forget <strong>Evan Turner</strong>’s 37-foot buzzer beater against Michigan? – and again in 2011, when they wiped the field and headed to the Big Dance as the nation’s No. 1 team.<br /> <br /> The last time the event was in Indy, 2012, Ohio State lost in a doozy of a championship game with Michigan State but went on to the Final Four.<br /> <br /> So it seems there are almost good results and major momentum for Matta’s crew at the conclusion of the league tournament.<br /> <br /> “I’ve had a lot of coaches call me and ask (about the success,” Matta said. “But in terms of preparation, in terms of pregame speeches, in terms of what we eat, it’s kind of always the same. I wish I had a secret.”<br /> <br /> While Matta can’t explain the phenomenon, he is proud of his 19-5 mark in the BTT – and seven conference tournament titles in his previous 13 seasons as a head coach.<br /> <br /> “It does make you feel good,” he admitted. “It probably says, hey, you’re playing pretty good basketball at the end of the year. It means a lot more, I think, to the players and fans than all the coaches combined.”<br /> <br /> To enjoy another extended stay, Matta has stressed concentration, effort and toughness as much as X’s and O’s.<br /> <br /> “All he wants is for us to come out and play our best basketball for 40 minutes,” junior wing <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> said. “He doesn’t care about our tournament seeding, he doesn’t care about the regular season we had, he doesn’t care about anything going on. He just wants to win the next basketball game we’re going out to play.”<br /> <br /> The fifth-seeded Buckeyes (23-8) are favored to do just that as they’ll face league doormat Purdue (15-16) in the 5-12 game on Thursday (approx. 2:30 Eastern, Big Ten Network).<br /> <br /> No. 8 Indiana and No. 9 Illinois clash in the first game of the tourney and the Buckeyes and Boilermakers follow.<br /> <br /> A win for OSU sets up a date with No. 4 Nebraska, perhaps the hottest team in the conference, on Friday afternoon. If the Buckeyes should make it to Saturday’s semifinals they likely could find themselves paired with top-seeded Michigan.<br /> <br /> And even the first test will be no picnic. OSU swept the season series with Purdue with a 78-69 win in West Lafayette and a 67-49 wipeout of the Boilers last month in Columbus. Still, Matt Painter’s team is known for its physical play, ball pressure and the presence of 7-foot center <strong>A.J. Hammons</strong>, who had a combined 29 points and 23 rebounds in the two regular-season contests.<br /> <br /> “We have seen them over the course of the last couple weeks play some unbelievable basketball,” Matta said of the Boilers.<br /> <br /> Even if OSU can get by Purdue it may come with a price. And weariness is sure to set in at some point if the Buckeyes make it to the weekend.<br /> <br /> “Last year when we played Wisconsin (in the championship), guys’ legs were heavy and there was a little bit of fatigue going on, but I still think I’m a young guy,” Thompson said. “I still remember playing five games in eight hours in AAU. We’re in good condition, we have the player that can do it, and I think we’re tough enough to do it.<br /> <br /> “Everything we do in June and July and August is geared towards March and hopefully April.”<br /> <br /> Experts and even casual fans, though, would dispute the idea of the Buckeyes playing deep into March this year. After all, they have to play on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since Matta’s initial season of 2004-05 and have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the season and even during the course of several games.<br /> <br /> OSU even limped into the regular-season stretch drive with consecutive losses at Penn State (Feb. 27) and Indiana (March 2). However, the Buckeyes appear to have some mojo back after Sunday’s 69-67 survival against Michigan State on Senior Day.<br /> <br /> “We didn’t play perfect on both sides of the ball by any means – our offensive could have played better, our defense could have played better – but I think that we really fought for 40 minutes,” Thompson said. “They went on a few big runs in the second half and every time they went on a run we punched back. That’s just what we need to bring in the tournament.”<br /> <br /> And, if you’re lucky enough clothes and personal items for a four-day stay.<br /> <br /> “I know there’s a mall down there and you can get something if you shop there,” Matta joked.<br /> <br /> Matta won’t field an elite team this year, but he knows the conference tournament will have an anything-goes flavor to it, especially after a regular season rife with upsets like Illinois winning at Michigan State, Penn State sweeping OSU and Northwestern rolling at Wisconsin.<br /> <br /> “I think this year’s Big Ten Tournament could be one of the classics of all-time,” said the OSU coach, who played some of his college ball in Indy at Butler University. “I see where <strong>Warren Buffett</strong> is giving a billion dollars (to someone who picks every game correctly in the 2014 NCAA Tournament). I’d like to see somebody pick the route of this one as well.”<br /> <br /> Added senior point guard <strong>Aaron Craft</strong>, “Hopefully we can play a few games. It’s another opportunity to play more basketball and hopefully we can take advantage of it.”<br /> <br /> Thompson said the one-and-done nature of the postseason will be reason enough for the Buckeyes to give maximum effort.<br /> <br /> “It’s always a different mind-set when you get to tournament time,” he said. “Something small can end your season.<br /> <br /> “We’re packed for four days. We expect to stay through Sunday.”<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp 7785ac81-2e7b-472b-8c08-6bb126d1f33c Thu, 13 Mar 2014 03:13:38 GMT Vintage Craft, Perfect Sendoff <strong>Tom Izzo</strong> was in a foul mood after his Michigan State Spartans lost a palpitating 69-67 decision to Ohio State Sunday evening.<br /> <br /> Foul as in he couldn’t stop talking about the foul trouble MSU encountered, which, of course, is coach code for THE REFEREES STUNK.<br /> <br /> But just before The Iz got up to head to the bus and back to East Lansing, a reporter decided to fire off a question about OSU seniors <strong>Aaron Craft</strong> and <strong>Lenzelle Smith Jr.</strong>, who were honored prior to their final game at the Schottenstein Center.<br /> <br /> “I think they stand for everything that I would want a player to stand for and I was honored to coach against them for four years,” the longtime MSU coach said with his scowl still drawn on his face.<br /> <br /> Izzo then turned his comments specifically to Craft, OSU’s pain-in-the-rump point guard who also embodies what hard-nose basketball is all about.<br /> <br /> “He represents everything that I think is right,” Izzo said. “He struggled a little bit this year for a lot of different reasons but he made some big plays and had a very good game on Senior Night. A kid like that deserves to, and that was kind of his staple, so it was probably a poetic justice way to end the game the way he did it, and I give him a lot of credit for that.”<br /> <br /> Izzo referred basically to the final 4:30 of the game, when the Spartans went scoreless. Or maybe he was talking about the 9-2 run the Buckeyes (23-8, 10-8) used to close the game that included 1-for-5 MSU shooting and five turnovers by the No. 22 Spartans (23-8, 12-6).<br /> <br /> Or maybe he was thinking of the diving rebound by Craft or the way he flew out onto shooters with the game on the line or that he caused <strong>Denzel Valentine</strong> to travel on a key possession or almost single-handedly thwarted MSU’s fast break or how he suffocated <strong>Gary Harris</strong> and forced him to short a jumper on the game’s final shot.<br /> <br /> No matter how you look back on it, Ohio State came up with a must-have, not-so-pretty, blood-and-guts win thanks to blinding defense – and No. 4 was the key to all of it.<br /> <br /> Poetic justice indeed.<br /> <br /> Craft not only waved goodbye to the sellout crowd of 18,809 and set the all-time Big Ten record for career steals, he also was vintage Craft down the stretch, flaws and all.<br /> <br /> The most memorable moment, though, came with 29 seconds to go in the game. That’s when, trailing 68-67, Izzo drew up a play for <strong>Adreian Payne</strong> to launch a go-ahead three. <strong>Sam Thompson</strong> flew out on Payne and bothered the shot and Craft then swan-dived onto the rebound as it hit the floor.<br /> <br /> The Findlay, Ohio, product rose to his feet and pumped his fist, turning an already throaty crowd into delirium.<br /> <br /> “As only Aaron Craft can do,” OSU head coach <strong>Thad Matta</strong> said, “he comes over (to the huddle) and says, ‘Why did you call time out? It was a possession, you didn’t have to waste the timeout.’ I said, ‘I didn’t call the timeout’ Sam Thompson chimes in and says, ‘I called the timeout.’<br /> <br /> “But for him to have that awareness and question my coaching intellect … I will forgive him.<br /> <br /> “It was just a big-time play. I would say that would probably be the most fitting end to an Ohio State guy’s career in his last home game to make that play. For him to come up with that, I don’t know if you could describe his career any better than that.”<br /> <br /> A former high school quarterback who quickly won over Ohio State fans with his toughness, hustle and derring-do, Craft, of course, bloodied his elbow on the play.<br /> <br /> “At that moment, that’s what I have to do for our team,” Craft said with some of the blood stained on his jersey.<br /> <br /> Craft, however, was fouled with 21 ticks left and made just 1 of 2 free throws, which set up the gut-wrenching final seconds as All-Big Ten guard Harris headed the other direction with a chance to ruin Senior Night.<br /> <br /> “He’s a taller guy so I just wanted to keep him from getting to the basket and try to contest his shot as much as possible,” Craft said. “I didn’t want him to get a three off because that beats us, so the worst thing I wanted to happen was for us to go to overtime.<br /> <br /> “He made a good move, got a good shot off and luckily it was short. And Lenzelle did a phenomenal job of tipping the ball so Adreian couldn’t tip-dunk it to make it go into overtime.”<br /> <br /> Game over. Craft and Smith embrace to celebrate their 117th win together at OSU – the most for any group in program history – and last at home. They helped guide OSU to 52 Big Ten wins, a Final Four appearance, two Elite Eights, and three Sweet 16s. The duo combined to record 2,260 points, 1,007 rebounds, 863 assists, and 408 steals.<br /> <br /> Craft recorded 12 points, three rebounds, seven assists and four steals vs. the Spartans – a seemingly ideal line. He will walk away as the program’s all-time leader in assists (673) and steals (328), the latter now four better than the conference mark set decades ago by Illinois’ <strong>Bruce Douglas</strong>.<br /> <br /> When a reporter congratulated him on that feat, Craft replied, “What? Oh. All right. I honestly thought I had it already.<br /> <br /> “It feels good, though. It doesn’t mean a ton right now but looking back when I’m older I can tell the people around me I was decent playing basketball back in the day.”<br /> <br /> Few student-athletes actually attain the status of beloved, but Craft would be very high on that list as well. His father, <strong>John Craft</strong>, told it’s because of his fierce play, obvious passion to win, and statements like the sheepish reaction to the steals record.<br /> <br /> “I think what it goes back to is he’s very genuine,” Mr. Craft said. “What you get is truly what is there. He is very much a genuine person whether it’s academics, whether it comes to helping his community or the basketball team. And the other thing is, he’s a true Buckeye. And he will be that way for the rest of his life.”<br /> <br /> Craft was a freshman bench player in 2010-11 on one of the best Ohio State teams of all-time. All five starters and several reserves on that team were Ohioans born and bred. This season, Craft is the only one with such roots.<br /> <br /> During that initial season until now, the former Liberty Benton two-sport standout has become an all-time great Buckeye.<br /> <br /> “I remember the night <strong>David Lighty</strong>, <strong>Jon Diebler</strong>, <strong>Dallas</strong> (<strong>Lauderdale</strong>) and <strong>Eddie Days</strong> had their Senior Night (in 2011),” John Craft said. “It was spectacular and everything that went with it and what the game meant, but it seems like it was just a couple months ago. For this day to be here, it’s kind of out there for me.”<br /> <br /> “The other thing is our attention has been diverted with the women, which is kind of a blessing. We’ve been driving back and forth from Indianapolis the last three days. We haven’t really had a chance to fret over this or think about it too much because we’ve been so excited by the way they’ve started playing.”<br /> <br /> Mr. Craft referred to his daughter, <strong>Caity Craft</strong>, who is a sophomore guard for the Ohio State women’s team and turned in a sensational showing at the Big Ten Tournament.<br /> <br /> The women saw their season end in a tough 77-73 semifinal loss to Iowa, but that allowed the entire family and Aaron’s fiancée, <strong>Amber Petersen</strong>, to attend the Senior Night festivities.<br /> <br /> The presence of Cait may have been as important as anything to Aaron.<br /> <br /> “If they weren’t brother and sister they’d be soul mates,” John Craft said. “They confide in each other in things. He’ll tell her things that he won’t tell anyone else, and there’s been that trust there, which has been a huge part of his support system. He has a great support system in place, Buckeye Nation has been great for him, but to have Cait here and have him be able to be here for Cait, it speaks volumes.”<br /> <br /> When asked if his son seemed sentimental about his final home appareance, Mr. Craft said, “He might have gone through a couple periods of that but I think right now his main concern is this single game and what he needs to do to help the team win. Knowing him as well as I do, I think he’s probably shut everything out about the Senior Day.”<br /> <br /> Aaron agreed.<br /> <br /> “The toughest time was being around my parents before the game,” he said. “After that, once we got back in the locker room it was back to business and doing whatever we had to do to win this game. It’s a lot more fun right now than if we would have lost.”<br /> <br /> That was evident in the joyous scene after the final horn sounded. Craft had helped improve Matta’s record to 9-1 in senior sendoffs, but, more important, he and Smith – who had nine points, eight rebounds and four assists – put the Buckeyes in the right frame of mind with the postseason just ahead.<br /> <br /> “It means a lot to me personally, but this is a huge step for our team,” Smith said. “It just shows that when we come to play and fight for one another, we can beat anybody in the country, I think.”<br /> <br /> Added Craft, “I’m not worried about how I’m going to be remembered and any of that. It’s all moving forward. This is what we need to continue to do, this is how we need to play, especially down the stretch.<br /> <br /> “The way we played defense and really stepped up is what needs to be our calling card, and when we don’t do that we’re not going to win too many games.”<br /> <br /> That, too, is Aaron Craft in a nutshell – a competitor ever-determined to find the edge.<br /> <br /> “He’s pretty much the same person he was when he came down here four years ago, and it would have been real easy for him to divert away from that,” his father said.<br /> <br /> Jeff Rapp d8c01050-74f4-4019-b23f-71137c49f015 Mon, 10 Mar 2014 14:25:00 GMT Fickell Says He Never Fretted Thursday provided a second day of workouts for the Ohio State football team, which is trying to spit out the bitter taste of the end of the 2013 season.<br /> <br /> The Buckeyes are more than happy to be back to work, especially the coaches, after seeing their 24-game win streak end in a Big Ten Championship setback to Michigan State followed by a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.<br /> <br /> The defense was sieve-like in both of those contests, leading to speculation that <strong>Urban Meyer</strong> might relieve <strong>Luke Fickell</strong> of his defensive coordinator duties or even fire him.<br /> <br /> Cooler heads prevailed, and Meyer instead made two noteworthy pickups to the defensive staff – longtime Penn State D-line coach <strong>Larry Johnson</strong> was hired to replace the departed <strong>Mike Vrabel</strong>, and former Wisconsin and Arkansas assistant <strong>Chris Ash</strong> moved into the safties/co-coordinator role of <strong>Everett Withers</strong>, now the head coach at James Madison.<br /> <br /> Even when Ash was brought aboard, some followers of the program assumed Fickell’s role would be devalued. But that is not the case. On Thursday, Fickell addressed the media as he has many times, as OSU’s top defensive coach, and reporters asked how he handled all the conjecture about his job.<br /> <br /> “You know what, like I do everything else,” Fickell said. “Statistics, at the end of the year, you really look back at them, do you want to dive into statistics? Well, where were you in scoring defense? What is the most important? You can always find something that you can get better at, you’ve got to find something that you can hang your hat on.<br /> <br /> “But the reality is as you go on battling, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But what are you going to do, live your life worried about everything? How would that be? How much excitement, what would that do for you? You know what, you’re confident in what you do and you believe in what you do. If that’s what the plan is, that’s what the plan is. I want what’s best for this place. Coach Meyer knows that and we talked about that from day one.<br /> <br /> “If something is better for this place, then so be it because I want what is best for my alma mater, my university. Obviously, we have enough confidence in what it is that we do. We don’t just look at one single stat. I know you keep dwelling upon it and everybody dwells upon it, but the reality is this is a team game. People ask all kinds of questions. Why is this the best sport known to man? Because it’s a team sport. It’s more like life. If something happens to one of your buddies and he doesn’t pick you up, do you de-friend him for the rest of his life? Things like that. That’s what you learn from this.<br /> <br /> “The examples we set for our guys are the same examples we all live our life by. You can’t worry. Because there was a bombing in the World Trade Center a few years ago, do you never want to fly again? What are you going to do? I know it’s comparing it to different things, but the reality is you have confidence in what you do and believe in what you do and whatever happens, happens.”<br /> <br /> Fickell was asked if he could pinpoint what went wrong for OSU defensively last season.<br /> <br /> “There was a combination of things,” he said. “It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. And when things start to go and you lose your confidence, it’s tough. As coaches, you try and put a finger in all the holes you’ve got. You try and stop everything and you can’t stop anything.<br /> <br /> “As you look back, that’s the one thing you could say, ‘Hey, man, we tried to stop everything and we didn’t do a good job of stopping one thing in particular,’ and it cost us.”<br /> <br /> Fickell said he will continue to coach with the wishes of Meyer in mind.<br /> <br /> “He wants to be great,” Fickell said. “It’s pretty self-explanatory. We want to challenge everything now and say you’re going to give up a play here or there, but we can’t lose confidence in what we’re doing. If a guy catches one, he catches one. The idea of bend but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that Coach Meyer likes.<br /> <br /> “As we get into our third year together, you figure out each other and hopefully you can do a better job with it.”<br /> <br /> Fickell, who also tutors the linebackers, was quick to remind that OSU still posted 12 wins last year but also said he is open to change with the approach. With spring drills afoot, he said the concentration right now is to make sure all four defensive assistants – <strong>Kerry Coombs</strong> will continue to work with the cornerbacks as well as serve as special teams coordinator – are on the same page.<br /> <br /> The first step is simplifying the defense.<br /> <br /> “I think that’s where it’s got to start,” Fickell said. “The offenses, in everything they do, make you prepare for every single thing. That’s the hard development for young guys. The idea is to go back and simplify things and let those young guys play fast.”<br /> <br /> As for working with Ash and Johnson instead of Withers and his buddy Vrabel, Fickell assured there would be no issues.<br /> <br /> “The most important thing is we ask our guys to do their one-11th and play together,” he said. “It’s not any different for the coaches. It doesn’t matter about titles. Coach (Meyer) has challenged us. For the last month, we have been in there and battling through things so we can be on the same page.<br /> <br /> “Chris brings that ability to broaden yourself. You’ve done things a certain way for a long time. There are a bunch of different ways. In my time here at Ohio State, we’ve probably played every different kind of defense. He brings a different perspective on where he’s been, whether it was in the SEC or Wisconsin or Drake, where he went to school.<br /> <br /> “Just like having Larry, you have a guy who has done it a long time and you have a guy who brings some calmness and confidence to your room. It’s how the four of us mesh together. That’s been the most exciting thing for me the last four weeks.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Shoring Up The Middle</strong><br /> <br /> Fickell has two returning starting linebackers at his disposal but will be hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement for All-American <strong>Ryan Shazier</strong>, OSU’s leading tackler the past couple years.<br /> <br /> Shazier left after a monster junior year for the NFL draft and just ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s Pro Day on Friday.<br /> <br /> Back to claim their starting spots – if they can hold off all challengers – are <strong>Curtis Grant</strong> and <strong>Joshua Perry</strong>.<br /> <br /> A senior who has failed to live up to the hype as a topflight recruit, Grant says he is healthy and ready to hold down the fort at middle linebacker. Perry came on strong last year on the strong side, often taking advantage of opponents’ preoccupation with Shazier.<br /> <br /> In the very early going, redshirt freshmen <strong>Darron Lee</strong> and <strong>Chris Worley</strong> have taken the majority of reps at Shazier’s weakside spot.<br /> <br /> Pushing Perry will be <strong>Camren Williams</strong> and <strong>Trey Johnson</strong> while true freshman <strong>Raekwon McMillan</strong>, already enrolled, is breathing down the neck of Grant. Walk-on <strong>Joe Burger</strong> also is getting work in the middle.<br /> <br /> “We will rely on those older guys,” Fickell said of Grant and Perry. “They have been through a lot of battles and a lot of ups and downs. They’ve been through a 24-game winning streak and a two-game losing streak. They have to feed off of those experiences they’ve had.”<br /> <br /> Grant confirmed he was slowed for much of last season with a high ankle sprain and pinched nerve in his back. He’s now full-go.<br /> <br /> “I think he is refocused,” Fickell said. “We need senior leadership. You’re best when your seniors play best. When they play really good, you’re going to have a good season.”<br /> <br /> Adding to that focus is the presence of McMillan, considered by some services as the nation’s top interior LB prospect while dominating as a Georgia prepster. McMillan, who will don No. 5, is a 6-2, 240-pound specimen who admitted on National Signing Day that he is thinking about starting right away for the Buckeyes.<br /> <br /> Fickell, though, was cautious about talking up the youngster too much after just two days on the field with him.<br /> <br /> “It’s hard because nobody has put a true helmet on anybody yet,” Fickell said. “But you can see the confidence of a guy and a guy who has a lot of true instincts. It’s something you hold your breath on. Coach (Meyer) keeps coming over to me. I said I’m going to hold my tongue until we put some shoulder pads and get out of the underwear stuff.<br /> <br /> “Raekwon is a great kid. He is level-headed. He’s not walking around like he’s an angel because he was a five-star (recruit). You wouldn’t know it. He doesn’t get caught up in all of that stuff. He’s working hard and he’s grinding.”<br /> <br /> And that, believe it or not, is music to the ears of Grant.<br /> <br /> “He is very talented,” Grant said of McMillan. “He came in with a lot of things that a lot of freshmen don’t come in with. He brings in good competition. When a guy comes in like that, it makes you want to work on your craft even more and do the things you have to do to get better.<br /> <br /> “That’s like my little brother. Part of my job is to help him and make sure he doesn’t get caught up in some of the things I did. He’s doing great so far and I know he’s going to have success here, and I want to share in that.”<br /> Jeff Rapp b53208ef-05b6-4177-ac8e-41681785b4cc Fri, 07 Mar 2014 18:59:43 GMT