Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: A Ladleful Of Holiday Warmth
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
Now that Christmas is over, the first blanket of snow has covered Ohio and a new year is just around the corner, it’s an appropriate time to nestle up with a RappUp version of alphabet soup.
Think of this column as warm winter comfort food as we look back on an improbable, interesting, sometimes perplexing but never dull 2012. Ohio State and its fans were forced to endure a coaching change, NCAA sanctions, the pogo stick of emotions associated with March Madness, the loss of all-time performers and a flawed run at perfection on the gridiron.
The following is a look back at that twisted and occasionally glorious journey – and since the calendar is about to flip, perhaps a peek at what may lie ahead.
Happy holidays, everyone, and enjoy this frothy bowl of alphabet soup.
A is for assists-to-turnovers ratio. Thad Matta has said it’s one of the first statistics that draws his eye when he peruses the Ohio State men’s basketball box score. It’s also pretty telltale.
Matta, who took over the program in the summer of 2004, has consistently fielded teams that rank high both in the Big Ten and nationally in ratio and he’s had especially noteworthy success when he is able to put an extra ball handler on the floor.
In 2006-07, Mike Conley Jr. proved immediately he was much more than Greg Oden’s attachable buddy and ran the show even with the more experienced Jamar Butler also in the starting lineup. That team also featured a senior wing in Ron Lewis and an athletic reserve in the backcourt in freshman Daequan Cook. The Buckeyes advanced all the way to the national title game that spring.
Last season, the formula was similar: Aaron Craft took over at the point and Lenzelle Smith Jr., who played a lot of lead guard in high school and on the AAU circuit, beat out Jordan Sibert as the starting off-guard. They meshed well with senior William Buford, while spry frosh Shannon Scott received regular work off the bench. The result: The Buckeyes again made it to the last weekend of the college basketball season, earning a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.
B is for Buford, William. While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that the sometimes maligned Buford was stellar in his final game in scarlet and gray as he scored a game-high 19 points in the national semifinal with Kansas. He was 6 of 10 from the field, 3 of 5 from deep, canned all four of his free-throw attempts and added seven rebounds.
The point total brought the WB to 1,990 points, good for a tie for third all-time at Ohio State. That gave us a top five of Dennis Hopson (2,096 points), Herb Williams (2,011), Jerry Lucas/William Buford (1,990) and Kelvin Ransey (1,934). Buford is one of just four Buckeyes to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists, joining Jim Jackson, Evan Turner and David Lighty – also pretty good company.
Buford started 137 games as a Buckeye, the most of anyone in program history, and was part of 116 of Matta’s 230 wins and counting at Ohio State.
C is for champions. Ohio State has many of them. In fact, too many to mention. The school produced a dozen individual national champions alone, including track star Christian Manning, who bested everyone in the 100-meter hurdles during the outdoor season and also was tops in the country in the 60-meter hurdles during indoor. Also, Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola took the men’s doubles championship in men’s tennis.
Six OSU teams won conference championships including Manning’s track squad and the men’s basketball and men’s tennis teams. The fencing and synchronized swimming teams won national titles. And then there’s the football Buckeyes, who claimed the Leaders Division title despite not being able to participate in the postseason.
D is for defensive prowess. It’s wonderful to see points fly up on the board, but my favorite players to watch in 2012 were Aaron Craft and Bradley Roby. These dudes come to ball every single time out, and they don’t conserve energy.
Craft crushed Conley’s single-season steals record with a whopping 98, was voted the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and caused national pundits such as Jay Bilas to hail him as the best on-ball defender in the country. His uncanny ability to pester opposing ball handlers and his freakish lateral quickness and smarts make him a joy to watch.
Like Craft, Roby is super aggressive, disruptive and well aware of how to turn defense into offense. The highly talented cornerback made several All-America lists after ranking third on the team in tackles with 63 as well as defending 19 passes and breaking up 17 more. He returned a blocked kick, fumble and interception for a touchdown, and lowered the boom as well as he shut down receivers.
E is for Ed-die! Ed-die! Eddie George was honored at halftime of the Wisconsin game last year after being named to the College Football Hall of Fame, but he didn’t go off into the sunset. Still as popular as he was when he rambled for 1,927 yards and won the 1995 Heisman Trophy, George is as omnipresent as ever.
He became an even more familiar face on FOX Sports as an in-studio analyst and also found work as an assistant vice president for business advancement at his alma mater. That’s a fancy term for alumni schmoozer, but there is no doubt Eddie is ready for the job. He got started in New York City the week of the Hall of Fame inductions and Heisman presentation and reportedly had an immediate presence with potential gift-givers.
Even in a tough economy with rising costs and more national competition than ever among athletic departments, “big No. 27” figures to leave another mark on campus.
F is for focus. New coach Urban Meyer has it and his assistant coaches and players learned to thrive from it as well.
Sure, the Buckeyes made plenty of mistakes and even suffered from breakdowns in the back seven of the defense during the first half of the season. But when plays needed to be made late in games, many games, OSU came through every time.
G is for gravity. Sam Thompson seems to defy it. It is utterly amazing how springy this kids legs are on a basketball court.
Still raw in terms of his outside shooting and recognition, the 6-7 Thompson has a ways to go to become a well-rounded hoopster. But he’s already ahead of the curve simply with his marvelous athletic ability. His alley-oop dunk at Indiana (OK, last day of 2011, but we’ll go ahead an count it) was perhaps the best of its kind I had seen by a Buckeye. His dunk against Illinois back on Feb. 21 also was beyond description, especially since the pass from Scott was thrown behind him.
And there have been some more gems this season. Yes, Thompson eventually alights on the ground. But he sure does spend a lot of time above it.
H is for Herman, Tom. It’s difficult to find an Ohio State player who doesn’t love this guy, and as a reporter it’s also difficult not to be impressed with his Mensa intellect, likeability and knack for communicating the message effectively.
The OSU quarterbacks shot forward with Herman as their position coach and Meyer was able to showcase an offense that scored more than 50 points in four games – a single-season record – with Herman serving as offensive coordinator.
This guy is going places – fast. Next stop, a head coaching position somewhere on the college football landscape.
I is for the ill-fated Illini. Ay-yai-yai. What has happened to this school?
The basketball squad followed the lead of Ron Zook’s last outfit and completely tanked at the end of the season, which cost highly competent Bruce Weber his job. UI managed to land former Matta right-hand man and ex-Ohio University coach John Groce, so there is plenty of reason for optimism on the hoops front.
Football-wise, though, not so much.
Another former OSU assistant, Tim Beckman, took over for Zook (yet another onetime Buckeye coach) – and picked up where the Zookster left off, failing to win a single game against downtrodden Big Ten competition.
Visits from Illinois football and basketball teams to Columbus used to attract waves of orange-clad fans and exciting contests, but Illini teams were blown away like draft paper in 2012. The football team fell 52-22 to the Buckeyes this fall after the basketball squad was bombed 83-67 in February.
As Ohio State was hammering Illinois and pulling away at The Schott, I posted the following tweet: “The last time I saw a talented Big Ten team plummet like this ... Jay Burson was wearing a newly fitted neckbrace.”
J is for Jared, Sullinger that is. Columbus’ own returned to All-American status as a sophomore and came up big in Boston as the Buckeyes put on a lethal run to down Cincinnati and pulled away at the right time against Syracuse. As fate would have it, Sullinger announced his intention to bolt for the NBA draft and was selected by the Celtics, returning him to TD Garden.
However, Sullinger’s two-year college career also drew some criticism. As a sophomore, he was sidelined by back spasms (leading to more scrutiny of his playing weight) and often ended up on the ground looking up at referees in disbelief.
He came up with 13 points and 11 rebounds in the Final Four contest with Kansas but withered in the second half against KU center Jeff Withey and finished just 5 of 19 from the floor.
K is for Kenny G. The Buckeyes found out that their well-liked backup quarterback, Kenny Guiton, was ready to rise to cult-hero status after leading OSU on a clutch and enthralling comeback against Purdue.
Guiton was barely a blip on the major college recruiting landscape when he agreed to come to Ohio State from the Houston area and, according to Meyer, needed to mature and grow into the position. But he continued to work, improved and earned the trust of his teammates. Then opportunity knocked, although Guiton threw what appeared to be a crushing pick with 2:40 to play.
The Buckeyes stiffened on defense and allowed Guiton a reprieve, although he was left to take the offense 61 yards with just 47 seconds to play and OSU still down 22-14. He did it, with three seconds to spare.
The touchdown pass was to seldom-utilized wideout Chris Fields and the all-important two-point conversion was a perfectly timed flip to tight end Jeff Heuerman. The Buckeyes went on to post a 29-22 win.
L is for love, as in “I love that guy.” Jim Tressel was accused of being a little too touchy-feely as a football coach. Who knew the hard case who took over for him would drop the “L” word like a googly-eyed 16-year-old girl.
M is for Michigan. What else? The rivalry with the Wolverines in the two major sports didn’t quite return to epic proportions but it was stoked by a basketball loss at Crisler Arena on national television, the emergence of Columbus product Trey Burke at UM, the onset of the Meyer-Brady Hoke era in football and the insistence by everyone north of Toledo of referring to Ohio State as “Ohio.”
It also didn’t hurt that Meyer is a product of the Buckeye State, well-versed in OSU-Michigan lore.
“It’s electric in here when you start talking about this game,” Meyer told reporters the Monday before The Game. “Will we be defined by this one game? You usually are.
“Obviously, you walk through the facility, and there’s all kinds of tribute to this game, but this is all I knew growing up. It’s all anybody knew.”
Fortunately for Meyer, he currently is defined as 1-0 against ‘That School Up North,’ although OSU’s 26-21 victory was nothing if not hard-earned.
N is for No. 5. That would be Braxton Miller. That also now happens to be his standing in the 2012 Heisman Trophy race.
The sophomore was scintillating for the majority of the season, becoming just the third Big Ten quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards and setting the new school mark for total offense in a season with 3,310 yards. Many of Miller’s scoring plays were spectacular and he showed his new head coach and a critical public that he possesses the toughness to match his open-field elusiveness.
Miller was pedestrian at times as a passer in 2012, completing 148 of 254 attempts (58.3 percent) for 2,039 yards (169.9 per game) and 15 touchdowns, though he was intercepted just six times. Plus, it’s clear he has the skill and arm strength to become more polished in the pocket.
If he nears that potential, as Herman put it, the sky is the limit for the slick QB.
O is for overtime. Much like the national championship squad of 10 years prior, the football team got there twice under completely different circumstances and managed to find a winning formula in the extra session each time.
The more joyous occasion, of course, was the home triumph against Purdue, which ended with a fourth-down pass falling harmlessly out of the back of the end zone.
At Wisconsin, the Buckeyes went into OT with its momentum completely shot but turned that around by scoring first and again coming up with a must-have defensive stop.
P is for Prahalis, Samantha. OSU’s four-year point guard was feisty, unpredictable and even a bit reckless during her career. The Long Island native barked at refs, squabbled with teammates and even questioned her coach, Jim Foster, from time to time. But Prahalis’ impact on the women’s basketball program is undeniable – and she had one of the most impressive closing runs in school history.
Those who attended Senior Day on Feb. 23 saw Prahalis personally destroy Minnesota and then offer an emotional farewell address. After it those in attendance might have considered going back to the ticket window and paying double for the experience.
She set a new school record with 42 points in the win over the Golden Gophers and made Foster’s lip quiver and caused teammates to blubber when she admitted her stubbornness and professed her love of team.
Prahalis was named Big Ten player of the year by the coaches and the media on Feb. 27, making it eight years in a row that a Buckeye had won the top individual honor. She was the only unanimous first team all-Big Ten selection.
Q is for LaQuinton Ross. The 6-8 forward wasn’t part of the regular rotation as a freshman in 2011-12 after a late start because of academic ineligibility, but he hinted at his ability to play smoothly on the wing and deftly stroke home the three-ball.
After getting in better shape in the offseason, he merited regular playing time as a sophomore and busted out in the preconference with several double-digit outings including a career-high 22 points vs. Northern Kentucky. Through OSU’s 9-2 start this season, the man they call “Q” was averaging 9.1 points per game, third best on the team, and was showing himself to be a candidate for the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
If Matta is going to make a run at another league title, it stands to reason that Ross will be vitally important to the cause.
R is for recruiting. It’s always been critical to the major programs but inched even more into the spotlight in 2012.
Matta missed out on finding a topflight replacement in the post and appears to be paying the price for it now. Meyer, on the other hand, annoyed his new Big Ten brethren by going after four- and five-star prospects who were already committed to other league programs such as linemen Se’Von Pittman (Michigan State), Tommy Schutt (Penn State), Kyle Dodson (Wisconsin) and Taylor Decker (Notre Dame) and he managed to flip all of them to the Scarlet and Gray.
In all, Meyer landed eight recruits who previously were promised to other programs and inked 25 total. Experts considered the class to be a top-five haul, which was especially noteworthy since OSU was in the 15-25 range on those same lists before Meyer was hired in late November 2011.
S is for Simon, John. OSU’s two-time captain and standout defensive end put together a terrific senior season as expected. Working under assistant coach Mike Vrabel, a similarly relentless DE at Ohio State, Simon logged 45 tackles, 14.5 for loss and nine sacks. He also was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
But numbers and hardware don’t define Simon, who often earned the moniker of “the heart and soul of the Buckeyes” from Meyer.
Playing through pain, tearfully addressing he team in the locker room after a narrow win over Cal, taking on double teams, exhorting his comrades on the sideline and in the huddle, Simon embodied the tenacity of the 2012 Buckeyes and the resolve necessary to overcome all of the obstacles in place.
He simply goes down in history as a great Buckeye and one of the hardest working players the program has ever had.
T is for television. The Buckeyes live on it. Those that don’t like Ohio State have to deal with it.
U is for The Urbanator. That’s my nickname for Meyer, who may not have tickled the fancy of voters for national coach of the year but turned in one of the most impressive 12 months for an OSU mentor this writer has ever seen.
Ohio State didn’t face a loaded nonconference schedule and the league was not up to the standard, either, but 12-0 is monumentally hard to attain and should speak for itself. Add in how Meyer tweaked his ultra-driven approach, pulled in involvement from the student body, aptly dealt with the media, shook off the handcuffs of NCAA punishment, groomed a program in flux, attacked with a somewhat underwhelming roster, absorbed injuries and then the trying situations that emerged on game day, he simply pushed all the right buttons.
Now for an encore …
V is for victory bell. It rang after all eight games at Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeyes don’t figure to lose anytime soon during the Meyer era.
W is for Wildcats. The Buckeyes had a hard time shaking them on the basketball court and (luckily?) didn’t face them on the gridiron. But the matchups with Northwestern weren’t exactly epic. A rematch with Kentucky – yes, those Wildcats – would have been. But, alas, it didn’t happen.
Ohio State enjoyed a 13-point lead on Kansas in the Final Four and still led 34-25 at the break before crumbling in the second half. Mighty Kentucky had already swamped Louisville in the first semifinal and awaited the winner of the second game. The Buckeyes were on the doorstep of reaching the championship game for the second time in six seasons and could have tried to avenge the loss to Kentucky in Newark, N.J., a year earlier.
As the sports reporters like to say, “It was all right there … ”
X is for X-factor, the self-proclaimed title of Deshaun Thomas. The 6-7 lefty sometimes get caught in a tough matchup at power forward but as Bill Self pointed out recently, he often creates more problems for opponents.
That was especially true in the run-up to the Final Four, when Thomas played some of the best basketball of his career and led all participants in the NCAA Tournament in points scored. So far this season, Thomas is averaging 20.0 ppg and 6.8 rebounds per game.
He entered his junior year as one of the top players to watch and so far he has not disappointed. But Thomas always has been able to score the ball. He’s the third-leading scorer in the history of Indiana high school basketball – and that’s quite a history.
When he is in tune with all facets of the game, Thomas is as big a difference-maker as there is in college basketball.
Y is for youth. Meyer, Matta and Foster all face the new trend in major college athletics – freshmen need to play and sophomores need to become key components. It will be very interesting to see how the youngsters develop in all three programs.
Z is for Zach Attack. We knew how fun it was to isolate on Zach Boren and watch him peel the paint off of linebackers as OSU’s starting fullback and top lead blocker. We had no idea he would hold his hand up to shift to defense and that it would be even more enjoyable to watch him crash into people.
The son of former Michigan linebacker Mike Boren , younger brother to ex-Wolverine and Buckeye Justin, and older brother to current Buckeye Jacoby, Zach was smashing in 2012 – and earned major praise from Meyer for his unselfishness.
“Somebody should write a book about that kid,” Meyer said.
OK, this column is done. I’ll get right on that, Coach.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.