Matta's Men Remain Formidable
February 12, 2011
The Buckeyes went to Wisconsin’s intimidating Kohl Center on Feb. 12 and shot 54.3 percent from the field, made their free throws, committed just seven turnovers in a Big Ten slugfest and won the battle on the boards with the pesky Badgers.
They also lost – 71-67 – and it stings for a team that entered Madison 24-0 and for a fan base that for the second time in four months saw their beloved Buckeyes fall from grace at, of all places, Wisconsin.
But while Badger fans rained on the parade – again – stormed onto the playing surface – again – rubbed it in and stuck index fingers into the air on national television – again – I’m here to tell you it’s just not as devastating as it currently feels, Buckeye nuts. In fact, it’s not even close.
Unlike football, where OSU’s 31-18 defeat at Camp Randall Stadium in October immediately yanked away the national championship aspirations for Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes, this is basketball, where opportunity can knock again and knock quickly.
When the footballers were upended by unranked Wisconsin, Ohio State’s fate was sealed. No real chance at the BCS title game remained and redemption was going to have to wait at least a year.
But Thad Matta’s crew will face down this same Wisconsin basketball team on March 6, three weekends from this fateful loss, and the mind already can envision OSU fans taking their turn streaming onto the court at the Schottenstein Center.
Think about it. The Buckeyes could be trying to nail down an outright Big Ten title in front of a soldout crowd on Senior Day against the same group that just ruined their unbeaten season. Before the game, David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale will be introduced to the throng and thanked for all their accomplishments. The arena will be in a frenzy. The Buckeyes will be ready, more than ready. It could be a signature moment for one of the best seasons in Ohio State history. In other words, something to truly savor.
Plus, until the head-spinning outside shooting display by the Badgers, OSU built the lead all the way to 15 (47-32) with 13 minutes to play, prompting longtime ESPN analyst Dick Vitale to gush about the Buckeyes as an all-around team and label them as a very legitimate contender for the national championship.
That didn’t suddenly change just because UW guard Jordan Taylor had an out-of-body experience. It’s still true. This is an Ohio State team that trailed throughout the first half but crept back into the picture with outstanding team defense. And there were impressive mettle-proving offensive possessions as well.
When the Badgers opened up a 12-6 lead, Jared Sullinger calmly dropped in a hook shot and began to make his presence felt in the lane. When UW’s Josh Gasser took advantage of a defensive breakdown and made a reverse layup to provide the home team with a 26-23 lead, William Buford picked a very good time to can OSU’s first three of the game, catching a pass off a curl and swishing one from behind the arc to tie the score with 1:01 left in the half.
Moments later, after the defense forced a travel, the Buckeyes ran 32 seconds of clock and got a nifty scoop shot from Lighty with a second left in the half. As Lighty and few others can do, he made a highly athletic move to avoid a charge and still flip up the underhanded shot.
When Wisconsin scored the first basket of the second half, the Buckeyes put together an 8-0 run. After a hoop by Jon Leuer, they found another gear with an 11-2 surge that produced the 47-32 score. Wisconsin then took advantage of several rattled misses by OSU and exploded to knot the score at 49, but the Buckeyes did not crumble. Aaron Craft calmly ball-faked and nailed a jumper from the wing and Lighty then picked the pocket of Keaton Nankivil, drew a foul and cashed both free throws.
No, it did not go well after that, but Ohio State fought back from a seven-point deficit to trim the Wisconsin lead to 65-63 and was a defensive stop away from perhaps sending the game into overtime or even winning it. That’s when floppy-haired and little known 6-6 sophomore Mike Bruesewitz decided to chuck a three from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down. He made it with 29 seconds to play, effectively putting the first L on the board for OSU.
The loss left a hoarse Matta looking for answers and adjustments. The soft spot of the defense at the top of the arc, for example, will need to be addressed. And Wisconsin may have shown that the Buckeyes are susceptible to high pick-and-roll plays. But this game is not an omen of a tragic end to Ohio State’s previously magical season and it’s not a loss than needs to be overanalyzed.
It was a perfect storm: a very good and well-coached team that was clearly jacked to make history and playing in the comfort of its own environs. Late in the game, Wisconsin got several fortunate foul calls with the shot clock dwindling under five seconds. And the Badgers were out of their gourds from behind the arc, hitting 12 of 24 attempts from there. Bruesewitz, who probably wasn’t much of a concern in the game plan, awkwardly hit 4 of 5 shots and produced 12 points.
And Taylor, while an All-Big Ten-caliber player to be sure, got ridiculously hot. He finished with 27 points and seven assists and hit 8 of 13 shots, including 5 of 8 from deep.
When Craft first entered the game and matched up with the 6-1 Taylor, the Wisconsin guard clearly tried to attack him, and probably tried too hard. His first two three-point attempts were off the mark, the second an airball. Seconds after that force, he found himself isolated with Craft on the baseline and was so intent to drive past him that he traveled, changing his pivot foot twice.
But in the second half, every time Craft went under a high screen from Nankivil, Taylor fired and hit. One time Craft flew at him and Taylor buzzed into the lane and dropped in a picturesque floater. And with the Buckeyes trailing 57-55 and Craft right up on him, Taylor just rose and fired with the hand right in his mug and dropped home another crushing three.
It was an epic performance and proof that the Buckeyes can still have a hard time slowing down a hot hand. But this was more like scalding – and the chances of someone doing that to Ohio State in Columbus or even on a neutral floor are simply less likely.
Matta said it himself, Wisconsin played as well as it possibly could. Could that happen to Ohio State again? Sure. Is it likely to happen several more times? Absolutely not.
This is still a Buckeye team that is in the driver’s seat for an outright Big Ten title, a top-three ranking and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And it’s still a team built for a postseason run.
The Buckeyes have an unstoppable beast inside in Sullinger, veteran guards and dangerous outside shooters in Buford and Diebler. an incredibly versatile swingman who has won more than any other Buckeye in Lighty, a hard-nose point guard who gets better every time he takes the floor in Craft, a useful defender/shot blocking big man in Lauderdale, and an instant-offense supersub in DeShaun Thomas. They have enviable leadership. They have outstanding coaching. They have impressive poise. They have toughness. And most of all, they have answers.
This was not a case of a highly ranked team that was exposed as fraudulent or fragile. This was a top-15 Wisconsin team that played A-plus basketball for the final 13 minutes of the game and narrowly pulled off a huge accomplishment.
The Buckeyes can’t topple the undefeated 1976 Indiana Hoosiers and may not even go back to the top of the polls. But they can do something remarkable by replicating the feats of the 1959-60 Buckeyes. That team lost one Big Ten game all season. It came on the road in February against a ranked and very solid Indiana Hoosier squad.
The Buckeyes didn’t lose again after that – and hoisted the program’s only national championship trophy.
Panic not, Buckeye fans. Panic not.