No matter how the Ohio State Buckeyes’ basketball run ends over the next 10 days, the team already has surpassed expectations with a berth in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State (29-7) can make its second straight Final Four appearance with a victory tonight in Los Angeles over Wichita State. And this team has considerably more holes than the 2012 version of the Buckeyes, which lost 64-62 to Kansas in the national semifinals.
Since a 71-49 blowout loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17 — their third defeat in four games — the 2012-13 Buckeyes have reeled off 11 straight wins, including two over Michigan State and one at Indiana. Coach Thad Matta finally is getting a secondary scoring threat — sort of — to support junior Deshaun Thomas, and the team has reaffirmed its commitment to winning with defense.
To review, Ohio State lost post player Jared Sullinger and wing scorer William Buford from last season. The two were amazingly consistent in a positive way. Matta knew what to expect from them each and every game.
This season Thomas was expected to move into the role of top scorer which he has done and done well. A concern was that he would try too much to carry the team if another dependable scorer did not emerge. At times he has forced shots, but for the most part has stayed within the team framework.
It was expected by many observers that point guard Aaron Craft or fellow junior Lenzelle Smith Jr. would develop into a consistent secondary scorer but neither did on a consistent basis. Sophomore Sam Thompson also has shown flashes of being a scorer but not consistently.
Fellow sophomore LaQuinton Ross, who has broken out in the tournament, spent most of the season trying to increase his role in the team’s lineup rotation. Like Thomas, he never will be considered an elite defender, but he at least has applied himself to that end of the floor and no longer is a liability.
The inside game has been a weak spot all season with sophomore Amir Williams a major disappointment and Evan Ravenel doing as much as he could with his limited skill set.
Matta and his staff have done a great job — undoubtedly with the help of team leaders Craft and Smith — to get the Buckeyes focused again on the defensive end. That approach is the only way this team can compete, let alone win, against the nation’s best teams.
But that approach, now ingrained in the players, offers the potential for an even better season in 2013-14.
Most observers believe Thomas will leave after this season for the NBA. If he returns to Columbus that would be a huge bonus for the Buckeyes, but Matta probably is not counting on it.
It appears Ross is ready to take the next step into the scorer’s role and it would not be surprising if Thompson did the same. Both were big-time scorers in high school and both have flashed dynamic offensive games at times.
Craft, Smith and Shannon Scott will continue to provide outstanding defensive pressure. One would expect improvement from Williams on the inside, or perhaps from junior-to-be Trey McDonald. Both were big recruiting coups for Matta, coming from Michigan high schools. Neither has adjusted yet to the college game. Perhaps Ohio’s Mr. Basketball, Marc Loving from Toledo St. John’s, also could help on the interior.
When Matta brought in Ross, Thompson, Scott, Williams and McDonald three years ago it was considered an excellent recruiting class. It appears it will take until their third season for the group to make a mark.
But that mark could be a significant one, especially considering the success Matta and the Buckeyes have had the last two years while waiting for this group to develop.