Dancing with the Big Boys?
Wrapping up the college basketball season, at least for now...
1. UConn and Butler was not easy on the eyes. Skylar Diggins was, but beating UConn meant nothing to the Notre Dame women when it came time to play Texas A&M for the national title. I can't believe that I actually saw people on Twitter saying Ohio State and Kansas deserved to play in the national championship game. No, the teams that won every tournament game they played deserved to be there. Yes, it was ugly and, yes, it was a shame that Butler couldn't buy a bucket (or even come close). But Butler didn't make many against Old Dominion and Florida and still found a way. Win or go home. One shining moment, not the One-Seed Invitational. Monday night's title game with a ridiculously late starting time left little reason to stay up -- and that needs to be addressed before a whole generation of kids turn 18 before they see a title-game finish -- but the tournament itself was top-notch. And UConn is a deserving champion.
2. UConn certainly got hot at the right time -- a historic run through the Big East Tournament, then navigating two cross-country trips on the first two weekends of the NCAA -- but the Huskies weren't very good in February. That's how they ended up having to play five games in five days at the Big East Tournament. In the end, though, the Huskies put together a very impressive body of work. They won the Maui Invitational against big-time competition and got used to playing far from home on a neutral floor. They won at Texas in early January, then played an entire Big East schedule. Butler plays in the Horizon League, but the Bulldogs' non-conference games included trips to Louisville and Xavier and neutral-site games with Florida State, Washington State and Duke. Add that to last year's tournament run and Butler, too, had a body of work that at least suggested another run that included tough defense and the right bounces would be possible.
3. You might get what I'm trying to say. It is time for Thad Matta to beef-up Ohio State's non-conference schedule. Significantly. I'm not going to tell Matta how to run his program as he's obviously doing a phenomenal job, but December beatings of IUPUI and Florida Gulf-Coast in front of 8,000 in Columbus are not making the Buckeyes any more ready for the NCAA Tournament than their 8 a.m. AAU games before they get to Columbus would. Kentucky's length, athleticism and tempo bothered Ohio State in Newark, there's no arguing that. And the only way for Ohio State to prepare for that is to seek it out in non-conference play. Matta is (and has been) recruiting better athletes than most of his Big Ten opponents. And there's certainly something to be said for the Buckeyes adapting and surviving slow-down games vs. Northwestern and Michigan (especially next year's Michigan team), but Matta knows he's going to get 5-9 games a year against Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin. He has to seek out at least a couple games against teams that want to make Ohio State run and teams that can match or surpass OSU's athleticism.
4. Ohio State's marquee returnees assure that next year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge game will be against Duke or North Carolina, pitting top-five teams against one another, and that's a pretty good start. But it's not enough. That neutral-site game with Kentucky that he and John Calipari have in the discussion stages? It's time to move it to the next stage. Might Pitt be interested in playing, at least every other year or so, in Cleveland or in Madison Square Garden? Sure wouldn't hurt to explore it. Maybe Matta doesn't want to play Butler or Xavier because of his roots, but he did play Butler a couple years ago. Notre Dame and Louisville are easy trips, too. Bob Huggins' West Virginia team has never been afraid of an early-season challenge. I'm not expecting a call from Matta and Gene Smith for help with the schedule, but I'm also not expecting the Buckeyes to get to the Final Four if they don't get tested a bunch more before getting to the Big Ten season.
5. Besides the body of work, this year's tournament showed that besides a little luck and a lot of tremendous halfcourt defense, you have to have unique players to make a real run through March. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb are unique players. Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack are unique players. Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins and, well, you get it. Jared Sullinger is a very unique player. Aaron Craft and William Buford are, too. If Buford comes back, Ohio State opens the year as one of the top national-title contenders. Even if he doesn't, the Buckeyes have a chance to play themselves into the discussion. It all comes down to March, to one bounce, one stop, one shot. This year's experience can help. The overall experience of the three aforementioned leaders and the growth of a really talented group around them can help. Emphasizing a better and more diverse body of work can help, too. And maybe next April, every kid in Ohio can stay up 'til Midnight and enjoy One (Really) Shining Moment. Sullinger is coming back for no other reason.