A Breath Of Fresh Spring Air?

By Jeff Rapp, March 3rd, 2014

Ohio State basketball seasons are not supposed to veer this way.

Not with March afoot and not with Thad Matta patrolling the sideline.

The Buckeyes were supposed to overwhelm Penn State at some point Thursday, pay back the Nittany Lions for the aberration – or so we thought – that came in the form of a 71-70 overtime win by PSU in Columbus a month earlier, and continue to gain steam for the postseason.

But there are strange phenomena in sports that sometimes can’t be explained. Certain teams play way over their head against particular opponents and some teams, right when it can be assumed they are ready to impose their will and earn their stripes, don’t.

Penn State 65, Ohio State 63 – a result that is hard to explain and even more difficult for the Buckeyes and their fans to accept.

Forget the rankings – OSU entered the week No. 22 in The Associated Press poll and No. 20 in the USA Today coaches poll – and even the records. The bottom line is Ohio State was supposed to beat Penn State. It would have put order back in the universe and avoided the first PSU sweep in the series since Jim O’Brien was charged with taking over a rag-tag program just before the forgettable 1997-98 season.

Instead, the Buckeyes once again stumbled offensively and faltered down the stretch. They set themselves up for disappointment with factors that were very much in their control like more poor shooting (5 of 17 from three-point range, nine missed free throws) and factors that were out of their hands (Tim Frazier’s Senior Night, questionable calls contributing to Aaron Craft and Amir Williams being saddled with foul trouble).

D.J. Newbill may be a very good player but he becomes Joe Dumars when he sees the Buckeyes. After burning them for 25 points and canning several huge shots in the win at OSU, he tallied a game-high 23 in the encore and took advantage of the tight whistles by making 11 of 12 free-throw attempts.

Patrick Chambers also comes out smelling like a rose even though the Lions have been pungent in the many other close games they have endured this season.

The Buckeyes showed admirable patience late in the game by not fouling right away in the backcourt trailing by a basket and then going after big man Ross Travis, who promptly missed a pair of free throws. It was the proper strategy, and Chambers had to correct his error and pull Travis from the game.

But the Buckeyes negated the mistake as Craft got a bit out of control on a drive moments later with his team down three and lost the ball through the legs of a PSU defender. Craft knew there was time to get a quick two but forgot to take the ball with him.

That’s just kind of what we’ve come to expect with these 2013-14 Buckeyes. Effort is almost always there, competitiveness is not a problem and, for the most part, the basketball IQ is above average. But the plays – winning plays – are few and far between.

You can rip Matta for allowing Lenzelle Smith Jr., who had just one made field goal all night at Bryce Jordan Center, to fire threes that would have tied the game and the one just before the buzzer that would have won the game. I don’t.

Bottom line is a senior has to come up with answers and Smith, one of the team’s top scorers and most tenured players, was wide open on both attempts. The real mystery is why OSU was in that position in the first place and the only explanation is that this team just is too inconsistent to avoid costly sequences in stretches of games.

Which leads to Sunday afternoon’s contest at Indiana. The Hoosiers came in with only a flicker of a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, a mediocre 16-12 record including 6-9 in the Big Ten, and had to cram in a game with Iowa on Thursday that was postponed because of a ceiling collapse at Assembly Hall (OK, part of the ceiling).

They also were without their best player, freshman forward Noah Vonleh, whom Matta tried like crazy to recruit to OSU.

The Buckeyes came out looking focused and aggressive, enabling them to open a 20-12 lead. Minutes later they trailed 28-20. That’s right, they let undermanned IU explode for a 16-0 run.

That fateful segment included several breakdowns defensively (especially along the baseline), missed free throws (of course), a three-point barrage led by Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey (might want to guard them) and another utterly stupid shoving display by LaQuinton Ross, earning him another technical (I’m guessing this was addressed after the Northwestern game).

Ross tried to atone with 19 points and Smith matched that number but no one else could manage more than seven and the defensive stops disappeared after OSU scraped back to trail by just one point with nine minutes to play.

Indiana 72, Ohio State 64.

The Buckeyes (22-8, 9-8) are now out of the rankings, a half-game out of fourth place in the conference, and in danger of entering the postseason with a break-even league mark and a three-game losing streak as the regular-season finale with Michigan State on Saturday (4:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS) looms.

The Buckeyes, despite the presence of Craft and Smith – and 27.0 minutes per game from Shannon Scott – are averaging just 11.6 assists per game, which ranks 232nd in the nation. OSU is no better on the boards with 32.6 rebounds per game (237th).

And then there’s the shooting – or lack thereof. The Buckeyes’ team field-goal percentage of 45.0 is decent but is hindered by a three-point percentage of 33.3.

Ohio State failed to make a single three at Indiana with the 0-for-11 showing the first empty one in the 10-year Matta era. OSU makes 1 of 3 long-range shots – and the mind wanders to where this team would be with just a handful of timely makes from outside.

All nine losses were the result of poor shooting down the stretch, among other problems, and OSU’s lack of a proven take-over player doesn’t portend to good outcomes in the postseason.

However, the Buckeyes have been in every game this year and shown admirable fight in several of them, including a crazy comeback win against Notre Dame. While the latest developments have prevented even some staunch OSU fans to emotionally invest in this team, the truth is the Buckeyes still will go to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament and they’re still going to the Big Dance as well.

Even with a 9-8 league mark and middling 7-6 record against top-68 teams, Ohio State already has its ticket punched for the NCAA Tournament. They are going to get a chance to redeem themselves and they have enough talent and fight to scare even a top-tier team.

No coach has been more successful than Matta at the BTT and he’s got guards who can play fiercely on back-to-back days.

Only a fool would predict a deep run in the NCAAs but the Buckeyes, even as a 7- or 8-seed, are going to have a puncher’s chance to return to the Sweet 16.

As tempting as it is to grab the remote and turn to “Cupcake Wars” instead of going through the pain of watching another OSU meltdown, remember two things: There aren’t that many great teams out there to begin with and this just might be the type of team to recharge for the postseason.