Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: One Sneak Peak Does Not A Season Make
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).
On my website, SportsRappUp.com, I have a segment entitled Off The Ledge, because I sometimes feel the need to talk Ohio State fans back down from their despondent state.
The affliction can set in quickly. Sometimes it’s simply the result of one loss, or even an injury or failed experiment or flawed offensive output. One wouldn’t think it would crop up after an exhibition basketball game – it shouldn’t, by the way – but considering the circumstances it may be time for Dr. Rapp to show up instead of the fire rescue team and a large net.
So let’s examine the facts of Ohio State’s very lackluster and altogether disappointing win over Walsh University Tuesday night at The Schott.
Yes, the Buckeyes enter the season ranked fourth in the country but managed to slip past Division II Walsh by an underwhelming 83-71 count. The Buckeyes barely shot any better from the field than their visitors (50.8 percent to 48.3), were matched on the boards by a much smaller team, were burned from the outside, couldn’t gain a sizeable lead until late in the first half and allowed the Cavaliers to rack up 41 second-half points.
OSU head coach Thad Matta was rightfully concerned with the showing, and seemed to be scratching his head after declaring the Buckeyes were coming off some of the most competitive and encouraging practices he had ever conducted.
Why a team wouldn’t play as hard or as well in a game against a clearly inferior foe than it just did in practice is a bit mysterious. However, the crowd of 13,474 – or so they announced – wasn’t exactly rabid, and the atmosphere had to feel about five pegs below that of the last time OSU took to the court on the raised hardwood of a raucous Superdome in New Orleans for the Final Four.
And therein lies part of the problem. The OSU players said at Photo Day they believe they could still be a great team even after losing two-time All-American post man Jared Sullinger and wing William Buford, who produced as many points in his career as the great Jerry Lucas, good for third-best in program history.
A few of them even dared to state they were out to prove their “critics” wrong when a Big Ten media panel stood in line with the preseason publications and coaches poll and labeled Ohio State as the No. 3 team in the conference. That may sound like a slap to some knowing the Buckeyes are reigning co-champs of the league and are coming off a Final Four run, but considering Indiana is the consensus No. 1 team in the country and Michigan also is considered a top-five or top-six outfit, it’s really manufactured motivation.
In reality, no one knows how good Ohio State is yet relative to the college basketball field, not even Matta, and Tuesday night’s mini-preview only served notice that the Buckeyes need work in many areas if they want to keep proclaiming their loftiness.
Looking at those many facets point by point and tossing in some well-reasoned hunches about what really lies ahead is the best way to view this team in its pupa stage – and more reason to back away from the ledge.
So here are 10 factors to consider:
10. It’s an exhibition! My friend Bob Hunter of The Columbus Dispatch wrote a worthy column from courtside comparing this performance to the one that kicked off the 2007-08 season. That’s when OSU was clipped in an exhibition vs. Findlay after the previous team had advanced all the way to the national championship game and went on to finish fifth in the Big Ten and miss out on the NCAA Tournament, settling for a net-cutting at the NIT.
The correlation wasn’t lost on Matta, who admitted thinking of that red-flag moment as the current Buckeyes were slogging along against Walsh.
It’s a point well-taken, but still deserves a little more clarification. First, the 2007 national runner-up team lost three freshmen in the first round of the draft – Greg Oden at No. 1 overall, Mike Conley Jr. at No. 4 and Daequan Cook at No. 21. That’s hard for any program not named Kentucky to overcome. Seniors Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris also departed.
Second, that follow-up team was playing laudable basketball at the end of the season and absolutely should have been included in the NCAA field, a point further illustrated by its Sherman-like march through the NIT.
And third, this OSU squad won by 12 points and never was in danger of losing. A team being ranked this high and losing right out of the gate that I can recall is the 1999-2000 squad that was coming off a Final Four and also happened to be No. 4 in the polls. That team lost at the buzzer at home to Notre Dame on opening night but went on to win the Big Ten co-championship and earn a 3-seed in the NCAAs.
Now back to last night.
9. Deshaun Thomas had to score 25 points. And your point is … ?
Get ready to see that a lot – like almost every time out. DT was built by the basketball gods to score the ball, and he’s option No. 1, 2 and 3 this season. One of the best individual seasons I’ve ever seen by a Buckeye was Dennis Hopson in 1986-87, when he ended up breaking the school’s all-time scoring record and finished second in the nation in scoring at 29.0 points per game while chipping in 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.2 steals per contest.
Am I suggesting Thomas could match that monster output? No. But he could approach those numbers and rank among the top scorers in college basketball. He’s going to average 15-20 shots a game, hit occasional threes, get to the line and also find the basketball off of putbacks. He’s going to be virtually unstoppable.
Whether that leads to an overdependence on him and less-than-scintillating team results remains to be seen. After all, the ’87 Buckeyes were a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament and not an elite team. But they were fun to watch and very dangerous. And this OSU team clearly could be better, should be better.
8. The Buckeyes had 12 assists, 12 turnovers, 12 blocks and eight steals vs. Walsh. That’s an interesting combination of numbers and we could see more box scores like this. And it’s not necessarily a losing formula for the season. Ohio State is going to try to dial up the pace this season and that sometimes comes at the price of efficiency.
Matta has hung his hat on quality assist-to-turnover ratios and there’s no way he finds a break-even figure acceptable. However, keep in mind that Aaron Craft played only 28 minutes, and that won’t be the case in tight games against the likes of Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State or anyone else who poses a threat. Craft had six assists and zero turnovers last night.
Also, Matta will be willing to go to prolonged looks with Craft and Shannon Scott matched in the backcourt if ball handling becomes an issue. And this team is just beginning to learn how to look for each other and set up plays. The cohesion – and ability to produce 20-plus assists – is going to take time.
Plus, the block number jumps out. Amir Williams, a 6-11 rejection machine, recorded five of them in just 14 minutes, wing Sam Thompson collected three more and four other players had one apiece. OSU isn’t going to do that every night out against bigger, more talented teams but it serves early notice that drivers enter the lane at their own peril.
7. Walsh hit 8 of 16 threes. This isn’t necessarily the signal of a trend and shouldn’t set off any alarms – yet. Threes come and go, and crafty, smallish teams like the Cavaliers have to try to find cracks on the arc and hit a high percentage just to stay in games.
What’s more disturbing for Matta is that Walsh hit 5 of 9 in the first half and used that early success to set up a productive offensive second half. The Buckeyes didn’t show urgency in getting out on shooters at times and thereby allowed their guests to keep the outcome respectable. That will be addressed. And addressed some more.
6. Matta can’t seem to decide between LaQuinton Ross and Thompson at the three. That’s fine. That’s not a problem, dare I say an asset.
Q started the game but Thompson came in early with a wave of substitutes since Matta likes his on-court rapport with Scott and also wanted to get an early look at frontline reserve Evan Ravenel.
Ross came through with 13 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes. He also nailed a pair of threes, although at least one of his three misses from deep was ill-advised and warranted a discussion with the coaches on the bench. Thompson started the second half and ended up playing more minutes, 29, and had a very good line – 11 points, four rebounds, four assists (with no turnovers), three blocks and two steals.
Who cares who starts. Ross is confident and more offensive-minded and could use the constant motivation of Thompson lurking for some of his minutes. Thompson has a chance for a bust-out season and can be a force defensively but would be better served in a somewhat limited role to keep his energy level high.
The coaches will manage this situation and even play the two together some. Plus, they have the ideal size for the third guard position – Thompson is 6-7 and Ross is 6-8. Matta plans to use them as needed and take advantage of their combined array of skills.
5. Williams played only 14 minutes and had just one field goal. There isn’t much upside to the absence of Sullinger. His consistent production, smarts, wonderful hands and knack for making big baskets in the paint all will be missed. But the Buckeyes will not be relying heavily on any of their big men this season and therefore shouldn’t go into a shell when someone like Williams is in foul trouble or is marginally effective.
The sophomore has a long way to go in terms of posting up and presenting himself, and he’s better off catching a high lob for an easy one than trying to put a shoulder into someone and make a power move in the paint. His offensive maturation will come and doesn’t need to be forced this season.
And it’s worth noting that Williams’ teammates firmly believe in him as a defensive intimidator and eraser. OSU won at a high rate with a similar player in the pivot, Dallas Lauderdale, just a few years ago, and Williams has the potential to be even more daunting in the post.
Plus, Ravenel is ideally suited to come off the bench and play either the four or the five. He’s willing to mix it up and help the Buckeyes stay competitive on the boards.
4. Freshman Amedeo Della Valle and sophomore Trey McDonald only played eight and nine minutes, respectively. Hey, someone has got to be at the end of Matta’s bench and it was unlikely either of those players were going to have anything more than a situational role this season anyway. Plus, there is still time for each of those players to niche themselves and play a bigger part in the future.
McDonald has been hailed as the most improved player on the team, and at 6-8, 240 he has impressive hands and ability to get up and down the floor. My guess is he’ll be needed inside at times this year and will show his wares. He’s worked diligently on his footwork and half-hooks and needs to continue to do so.
Della Valle is listed 6-5 and is a very heady combo guard with terrific range and shooting touch. His teammates say he’s as dead-eye as anyone on the team and Lenzelle Smith Jr. dared to even compare him to Jon Diebler in terms of burning defenses that forget about him. We’ll see.
He’s got an entire preconference to hint at what he can do and it stands to reason that he’ll be used as a zone buster in an important league game or two. Fun seasons always include pleasant surprises and important road wins. Della Valle gives the Buckeyes a chance at that kind of moment.
3. Smith was quiet. That shouldn’t continue. He’s very aware of his role and importance to this team, and he showed unequivocally in the postseason that he’s not afraid to take big shots – and drain them. None of that was required Tuesday night.
Smith took the floor as a calming presence in the backcourt alongside Craft and asserted himself defensively with a pair of steals and some heady help defense. He took just four shots and made two including a three-ball.
It was is if the coaches told the junior lefty and Craft, “Hey, we know what you guys can do. Just set a tone for us and we’re going to try some different combinations.”
2. OSU had just 33 rebounds, the same as Walsh. I don’t have a great retort to this as it’s possible that the Buckeyes are going to be only competitive on the boards this season. However, this was a nearly season-long issue a couple years ago when Ohio State won, oh, 34 of 37 games. Everyone has predicted doom for the Ohio State football team this season because of shaky moments on defense, but Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes keep winning.
You’ve got to do it when it matters most.
Dominance on the backboards is wonderful but few teams have it. The Buckeyes are going to play fast this year and don’t have Sullinger to clean up most of the misses, which means a group effort and more concentration on rebounds is an absolute must. Again, Matta and staff are well aware of this and, again, there’s no reason why the Buckeyes can’t be moderately successful at it.
Craft and Smith aren’t very tall but have long arms, active hands and are willing to pull down their share of rebounds. Thomas can have big numbers in this department. Ravenel also will lead the way at times. And Ross and Thompson clearly are lengthy enough and athletic enough to grab the requisite amount.
This could be an issue going forward but shouldn’t be judged solely off a blah effort against Walsh, which leads to the most important point …
1. It’s an exhibition!
*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.