College Basketball Road Trip: Spartans ‘a little wimpier than we used to be’
Stop 11 of the Fox Sports College Basketball Road Trip brought us to Columbus, Ohio, for another edition of the Michigan State/Ohio State rivalry. It was an exciting game — with OSU edging the No. 22 Spartans 69-67 — which was good as we came in dragging following a 10-hour drive from Saturday’s game in Ames, Iowa. A lot has happened since we last checked in, so here are eight quick hitters from Columbus and college basketball as a whole this weekend:
‘NEARLY PERFECT’ FINISH FOR OSU
Sunday was as close to a must-win game for Ohio State as you see in regular-season college basketball. After losing two straight to finish an overall disappointing Big Ten season, the Buckeyes needed one good résumé win for seeding and confidence, plus the chance to leave open the possibility of a bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
The desperation was obvious on the court and in the crowd, and the nervous energy around the building was palpable. The players showed nerves down the stretch — the Buckeyes missed 6 of 8 free throws in the final three minutes — but solid defense capturing nearly every 50/50 ball proved to be the difference. Thad Matta’s group finishing strong has to encourage a coach that has seen his team fail to make the big play in a number of Big Ten games this season. Afterwards Matta said the scenario of the game was "nearly perfect," as it gives his team the exact type of late-game momentum needed heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
FITTING FINISH FOR CRAFT
It was the final regular-season game of Aaron Craft’s seemingly never-ending Ohio State career (he is a first-ballot member of the Jess Settles Hall of Fame, given to players who seem to be in college for decades) and was a great representation of all that Craft brings to the table. He had 12 points, 7 assists and 4 steals, while setting the all-time Big Ten mark for most steals for a career, a honor that Craft acknowledged he "already thought (he) had." It was a solid, quintessential Craft game, with big hustle plays (his dive onto the floor for a loose ball with less than a minute to go was a game changer) and some head-scratching decisions and missed free throws.
But that is Craft. He gives you everything he has in, plays with a grittiness that announcers love to praise, but also can make frustrating decisions that drive his coaches and fans crazy. In the end, though, even for fans who find Craft hard to cheer for (aka fans of any team opposing him), few could argue with Spartans coach Tom Izzo’s comment after the game: "He represents all that is good and right about college basketball."
IZZO: ‘WE ARE A LITTLE WIMPIER THAN WE USED TO BE’
Speaking of Izzo, his postgame press conference was one for the books. He took to task seemingly everyone from his own team to officials to the rules of college basketball.
He blamed part of the game on his inability to keep his team on the floor as a unit thanks to foul trouble. He complained that Adreian Payne "got the hell beat out of him" and received few favorable calls while noting with a hint of sarcasm that his players weren’t on the court because "I guess we fouled too much." But Izzo also had some pointed words for his own team.
"We are a little wimpier than we used to be," Izzo proclaimed. "For those of you guys that think we are the old smash-mouth Michigan State team, we aren’t that team and we haven’t been that team."
Not exactly the most confident expression going into the tournament.
Also, I didn’t see when in the game this occurred, but apparently a fan at some point confronted Izzo on the court and said something nasty to him. While the Spartans coach refused to explain the details, he said "She was a kind of a jerk" when asked about the incident. It is the second straight week with a fan-coach interaction on a court, and while this one may not have been quite as dramatic as what occurred with the Hawaii coach, it once again showcases that the security in arenas probably needs to be upgraded.
Izzo also complained about a systematic change that I believe would make the college game better. The five-foul rule too often causes players to miss huge stretches of games after touch fouls that dramatically alter the scope of a contest. Izzo is an advocate of changing to six fouls in college basketball and from my end, it is necessary. A player gets two fouls in the first half and he is essentially out and the entire game changes.
Izzo said about Sunday, "We didn’t play with the team we had in practice," and he is correct in noting that this can cause a team to completely have to abandon its game plan early. Changing to six fouls would make a huge difference in that regard and make the game more entertaining for fans who want to see the best players on the court.
MAKE SOME NOISE, BUCKEYES FANS
Value City Arena at Ohio State was packed for Senior Night and the atmosphere was a good one. But every time I come here, I have the same feeling: It lacks a little something compared to the best spots to watch college basketball. It has all the makings of a Top 10 atmosphere, a strong fan base, students close to the court and nice, modern amenities. But the crowd always seems a little more docile than I would like.
Columbus isn’t really a pro sports town, but the fan base never hits college levels of excitement and rowdiness. At its loudest, it resembles an NBA experience, which is perfectly fine but not quite what I hope for in college basketball. Like with the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, every trip always leaves me slightly disappointed because I know the OSU fans can do better.
SHOCKERS, WIGGINS AND MONDAY’S LAST STOP
In other news around the country, Wichita State’s win in the Missouri Valley Tournament puts the Shockers in prime position going into the NCAA Tournament to not only get a No. 1 seed but also be in contention for the overall top seed. If I were on the selection committee, Florida would get the top seed as I believe the Gators are playing better than anyone in America. But Wichita State made me a believer on this trip, and probably should get slotted second in the S-curve. While some analysts claimed that it would help Wichita State to lose a game going into the tournament (a silly notion), the attention and pressure should be fine for the Shockers after the Final Four run last year.
Andrew Wiggins showed Saturday why he should be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, with his 41-point performance in a loss at West Virginia. While the Jayhawks will not be a contender to win the national championship if Joel Embiid cannot go — and reports Sunday that he is seeing a back specialist in California are not encouraging — March Madness likely will give Wiggins the national stage to show he is worthy of his preseason hype. It has taken Wiggins a bit longer than expected to find his groove, but no player in the collegiate game is better at getting to the basket and his athleticism is astounding. We all should enjoy what will be his one and only trip through the NCAA Tournament this month.
We are about to dive headfirst in the most fun week of the year in sports: conference tournament week. Games on television from noon to past midnight every night, and teams all across America fighting for a chance to make the field of 68. Monday we will finish our tour by visiting one of those games, the Southern Conference Championship in Asheville. There is no better setting than a close game in which the winner makes the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully we will finish the tour in style with just that type of moment.