Fox six weeks, the basketball Buckeyes looked close to unstoppable.
By ZAC JACKSONFS Ohio
The 2012-13 Ohio State basketball team will be remembered as a revitalized one that rallied late in the season, played its best basketball when it seemed to count the most, but ultimately picked a really bad time to have a clunker.
Coming one game short of the Final Four stings, and it should. Wichita State's trip to Atlanta this weekend is deserved, and certainly no fluke.
For six weeks, Ohio State made just about everything go its way. A flawed team became an aggressive, pace-dictating team that maximized its talent. For that, coach Thad Matta should be commended.
The program is in good hands. The season should be considered a success — and maybe Matta's finest considering how the pieces came together starting in late February.
The record books will show Ohio State won the Big Ten tournament after finishing tied for second in what was probably the conference's banner season. The Buckeyes were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and came one game short of hanging another Final Four banner. It was a season that further established Ohio State as a top-tier, top-10 basketball program nationally.
It's come a long way. This team came a long way, too.
For much of the season Ohio State wasn't hard to figure; at times, developing a plan to defend the Buckeyes wasn't that hard, either. Long on athletes but short on shooters, Ohio State needed Deshaun Thomas to score, needed its defense to create scoring opportunities and was prone to long stretches of missing jump shots, often badly. Aaron Craft led the Buckeyes, per usual, but was in a totally new role offensively and rarely looked totally comfortable with it.
The other guys flashed potential. On this level — and in this season's Big Ten, specifically — untapped potential was a ticket to nowhere.
In a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin in February, the Buckeyes looked like a team headed for disaster. In one game, all their flaws came to their forefront and no rally was made. The blueprint on how to beat Ohio State was very much evident.
Then, Matta and Craft decided to change that blueprint. Other guys followed.
Guys not named Thomas started making shots. Shannon Scott and LaQuinton Ross grew up fast and grew into key roles. Whatever buttons Matta pushed seemed to be the right ones with the Buckeyes playing fast, Sam Thompson playing above the rim and Craft meeting — and surpassing — almost every challenge in front of him. Matta has always liked a two-point guard lineup, and Craft and Scott made it work.
After two seasons of building the offense around the unique talents of Jared Sullinger, Ohio State got almost no post offense all season. Amir Williams helped in stretches and Evan Ravenel made limited but well-timed contributions. In big moments, Ohio State went with three guards and two forwards who play like guards and made that work, too.
With defense leading the way, the Buckeyes found offense through improved shooting and a small-ball lineup. They had different heroes at different times and weren't fazed by early deficits or hot shooting by opponents until Wichita State put it all together for about 32 minutes last Saturday, and the Buckeyes late rally came up short.
Yes, the brackets fell their way in both the Big Ten tournament and in the West region, but there's no such thing as an easy path. There's nothing wrong with being a little lucky — and Ohio State was that — but luck always takes a back seat to execution, capitalizing on opportunities and winning the biggest minutes, even when you can't or don't win all 40. For 11 games between that Wisconsin disaster and the West regional final, Ohio State won the big moments and most of the small ones, too.
Again, the Wichita State game stings. The Buckeyes struggled at both ends, made uncharacteristic mistakes and couldn't buy a shot. By the time some fell, they'd given up too many easy ones and had to scramble. They ran out of time and energy.
Twenty-nine wins is no joke. Six weeks ago, did it look like this team would get 23 or 24?
The college basketball season is long — very long — and especially in the rugged Big Ten. Especially when road games sometimes mean de-icing planes and 5 a.m. arrivals and a player trying to regain confidence or find a groove finds the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana in the way.
All seemed lost on Feb. 17 when Ohio State was steamrolled at Wisconsin. The Buckeyes were flat, too dependent on Thomas and just plain bad when left to make jump shots or score in any way that wasn't transition.
Matta found a cure. Multiple cures, actually. Scott and Ross got confident. Thompson started making shots. Thomas kept producing, Craft started playing on a whole new level and the Buckeyes started both fixing and covering their deficiencies.
Over the last five or six weeks, the Buckeyes gained respect and confidence. Many of the key contributors will be back, even with Thomas expected to head to the NBA. A new season always brings new challenges and new issues, but at the end of this season the sophomore class started to play like it was worthy of the hype. Craft might feel 30 at times, but he's 21 and has another season left. Matta and his staff saw the best and the worst in this year's team, and that should help going forward.
Ohio State basketball is in good hands. By any measure except having a game or two left, 2012-13 was a success