Buckeyes focus on embracing spotlight, improving D
By Zac Jackson
FOX Sports Ohio
January 19, 2010
Ohio State takes to the floor Wednesday night in a familiar spot -- at home, in a game it should win rather easily, taking on an opponent that knows the Buckeyes the well but shouldn't have the firepower to keep up.
But this one with Iowa (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) isn't just the first game OSU will play against a Big Ten rival for the second time this season. It's the Buckeyes' first game as the nation's No. 1 team, a ranking earned through 18 prior wins in as many tries and a ranking achieved with the release of this week's polls.
Not that the Buckeyes haven't already been getting each opponent's best shot -- the first Iowa game two weeks ago is a prime example -- or sweating out the kind of close, hard-fought victories that are a staple of almost every team's conference season.
Thus far, the close calls have gone the Buckeyes' way. And head coach Thad Matta insists it's been business as usual for his team both as they've chased the No. 1 ranking and now that they've achieved it for the first time since Dec. 20007.
"We're hopefully not even halfway through our season," Matta said Tuesday. "I'm happy for the program and the school...but (the No. 1 ranking) never scored anybody a point or gotten a rebound. We have to go out and play."
Here are three more issues facing the Buckeyes as they go forward and try to maintain their ranking...
1. They've been scoring more points than the competition. They just haven't earned many style points in the process.
Part of that has been due to the opposition. Ohio State is getting everybody's best shot, and almost everybody is making the Buckeyes play exclusively a halfcourt game. Teams are throwing two or three bodies -- and the 10 or 15 fouls that come with them -- on freshman Jared sullinger in the post, and patient offenses have forced the Buckeyes to play solid defense for the entire 35-second shot clock. The Buckeyes have had their share of defensive lapses since the Big Ten opener on Dec. 31.
"It is amazing how much slower the games have been here lately," Matta said. "We've had a lot fewer possessions."
That means every possession counts. The Buckeyes didn't take that mindset into their game at Iowa (7-10, 0-5) on Jan. 4 and dug themselves an early hole before rallying to win, 73-68.
"On some of the plays we had to tell Dave Lighty that the people in the stands are not viable options for people to pass the ball to," Matta joked Tuesday.
Their three games since have been decided by three, four and three points respectively. The Buckeyes know they're not invincible, but they've been talented and clutch enough to escape.
2. The whole "defense wins championships" thing is cliche, but opposing gameplans aren't going to change. OSU has to be better at the defensive end.
"I'm not convinced we're doing all we can to contest (jump shots)," Matta said. "That's one of the big things we're working on."
Freshman point guard Aaron Craft said the Buckeyes went through an intense practice Monday with the focus on "getting back to playing defense the way we're capable of."
"Honestly, it was like the first day of practice," Sullinger said.
Matta has their attention. He needs to see results on game nights.
This team is capable of being very good at the defensive end. Both Lighty and William Buford are versatile and athletic enough to guard multiple positions, and Craft's emergence has helped a team that was once unsure if it had a true point guard defend opposing ball handlers.
Center Dallas Lauderdale, a fifth-year senior, is capable of being a force in the paint but Lauderdale has struggled at the offensive end and his body language shows it. He missed two free throws late in the Minnesota game and committed a turnover on an ensuing possession, throwing the ball away before he could get sent back to the line. Maybe one game with everybody playing well -- and Iowa certainly provides the opportunity -- could prove to be a confidence builder.
3. It's a long way to mid-March and, hopefully, early April.
Matta's thought that the season might not be half over is an interesting one. OSU is far and away the most talented team in the Big Ten, and mixing a National Player of the Year candidate in Sullinger with the experience returning from last year's Sweet 16 team makes the Buckeyes capable of winning it all. They probably weren't planning on being No. 1 at this point, but it's arrived. And even Matta is unsure how things will unfold from here.
Sullinger and craft are playing key roles just 10 months removed from playing high school ball, and a third freshman, DeShaun Thomas, is also being counted on in what's a very short rotation. Matta said Thomas is still adjusting to the mental aspect of the college game, and opponents will attack him at every opportunity.
Ohio State has not played a ranked opponent since Nov. 16, the second game of the season, at Florida. That will change Saturday in a nationally-televised matinee at No. 22 Illinois. The Illini beat Michigan State, 71-62, Tuesday night to improve to 14-5, 4-2 in the Big Ten.
That's not to say the Buckeyes haven't played anyone -- they won at Florida State, which Duke did not -- and Minnesota has since entered the rankings. They already have three conference road wins under their belts and are getting used to the slower, more physical aspect of conference play.
"We've made plays down the stretch when we've had to at both ends," Matta said.
So far, so good. And a team that knows the nation is watching and has legitimate thoughts of getting to Houston and the Final Four needs to have the maturity to take things one step at a time, starting with Iowa.