Matta’s Crew Still Has Time

By Jeff Rapp, January 21st, 2015

So you witnessed the Ohio State men’s basketball team outclass Michigan on Jan. 13 – one day after your beloved Buckeyes won the College Football Playoff – and you found yourself feeling greedy about getting to enjoy another championship run.

Then Thad Matta’s crew took back to the road and never found an offensive groove in a loss to Iowa days later, a setback that completed a Hawkeyes sweep and left the Buckeyes at 14-5 overall, 3-3 in league play and firmly in control of middling status in the Big Ten.

That’s usually enough reason for panic and the assumption that this puzzling outfit just isn’t good enough to do any appreciable damage this season.

While I can’t guarantee a patented Matta run in February that will set up an enjoyable March, I would at least advise against throwing this whole thing in the dumper. And since this section of SRU is called Off The Ledge, it’s probably time to come down from that high place and pull your remote back out of that poor TV in the man cave.

First of all, this team has talent.

Let’s start with D’Angelo Russell. The smooth freshman is a nightmare for defenses with his left hand, deep shooting range, creativity and effective gliding moves to the basket. The kid is a big-time player and ranks third in the league in scoring at 18.6 points per game.

“He’s a really good basketball player,” Matta said after Russell burned Michigan with 21 points, four rebounds, six assists and four steals. “I know that he isn’t satisfied when he doesn’t play well. One of the biggest things we have to do is challenge him when he does play well in terms of the next game and going out and doing the job he needs to do. We are a better team when he is on his best game. Not just his scoring game but the little things in his game as well.”

As the Buckeyes continue to find themselves directly in the fray with quality teams, Russell will continue to grow and prosper. Look for him to make winning plays in several key games.

Shannon Scott is a blur at point guard and has learned how to play with efficiency. He’s still not a great shooter but is at least a threat when left alone now and is very crafty with the ball. He currently leads the Big Ten in assists (6.9) and steals (2.3) per game.

Fellow senior Sam Thompson also is not a deadly outside shooter but has been a model citizen and outstanding leader of a team littered with old and new. He’s been steady on each end of the floor and will be a boon to this team as it gets into the teeth of the Big Ten season.

Marc Loving has emerged as a reliable second scorer and at 6-7 leads the Big Ten in three-point percentage at an even 50.0. He’s 34 of 68 from behind the arc on the season, which is phenomenal for someone who fell out of consciousness after hitting the freshman wall last season.

Amir Williams remains frustrating to OSU fans who expected much more from a McDonald’s All-American but he’s still a very serviceable Big Ten center. He’s punished teams with small lineups and ranks second in the conference in blocked shots at 2.1 per contest.

Also, Ohio State’s potential off the bench shouldn’t be marginalized.

Kam Williams is in a funk at the moment but the 6-2 redshirt freshman is still the Toaster Oven – a little slow to warm but definitely able to ignite at any time.

Keita Bates-Diop is still trying to find a niche but is a long-armed combo forward who can shoot, pass and defend. Another versatile freshman, Jae’Sean Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is proving he is a difference maker who deserves extended minutes.

And while the front line isn’t striking fear into anyone, transfer Anthony Lee is finally getting healthy and looking comfortable inside. The 6-9 lefty could be a big help on the boards in the second half of the campaign.

Plus, this OSU team still has the makings to be disruptive defensively.

Scott is a ball hawk and adept at jumping the passing lanes. Thompson is a willing defender on the wing who recently held down UM’s Caris LeVert. When the Buckeyes need to slow down Sam Dekker, Terran Petteway, Denzel Valentine, et. al, they’ll turn to Thompson, who has been there, done that.

Russell is improved defensively and Lee offers an upgrade on pick-and-roll plays. And don’t forget about Tate. He’ll simply do the grunt work necessary on that end of the floor.

The Buckeyes still have found success since switching to man-to-man and currently rank second in the conference to Wisconsin in points allowed per game (61.2). Also, OSU is allowing foes to shoot 39.1 percent from the floor including just 30.5 percent from long range.

While the offense still needs some seasoning, it’s not as bad as one would think when looking at statistics. The Buckeyes still easily lead the Big Ten in shooting percentage (50.2) and scoring margin (+19.3) and are second in points per game (80.5).

Granted, some of that is a result of blowouts over hapless foes in November and December.

Still, the Big Ten outlook isn’t as rough as perceived.

Keep in mind that Buckeyes will face Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State only once in the regular season. The all-important games with the Terrapins and Badgers will be at home.

The upcoming contest with Northwestern on Thursday (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) will be OSU’s fourth road contest in its last five games, setting up a more home-friendly homestretch and several of the remaining roadies – vs. Rutgers, Michigan and Penn State in particular – look pretty winnable.

Remember, six games is a decent sample size but doesn’t indicate Ohio State can’t shake up this race.

Matta always builds for the long haul and he has said repeatedly that he likes the makeup of his team. And if the veterans are off their game, he has shown a willingness to go with the youngsters.

Also, it should be noted the Buckeyes have no bad losses to this point. With an RPI of 58 and strength of schedule of 75, clearly Ohio State has to pick up the pace to return to the NCAA Tournament.

But such an appearance – and maybe even a win or two during March Madness – is all very much in play.

Now it’s a matter of finding an offensive identity and some consistency.

“I think that our team is starting to get a good feel for who we are,” Matta said recently. “We know that we need to have the same type of energy in upcoming games.”