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Last updated: 12/29/2012 3:32 AM

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Men's Basketball
With Halfcourt Struggles, Buckeyes Had Better Learn to Run
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thad Matta knew what he wanted. He had preached it a thousand times. He had used a hundred illustrations. He hammered home the point with his players, often by any means necessary, that this young team would only be as good as its defense.

Thad Matta
Photo by Jim Davidson
Thad Matta

Yet, in the two biggest games of the year – the two games Matta and his team will most certainly be judged come March – it was the Buckeyes’ offense, not the defense, that failed them most.

Matta’s nature will lead him to point to his team’s lack of stops at the end of the Duke game or the times they lost Ben McLemore, a future NBA lottery pick, in the halfcourt against Kansas on Saturday.

They haven’t played perfect defense this season, not by a longshot. Certainly by the standard Matta has for this team in particular, which he has said all along will have to be one of the best defensive teams in the country.

They’re not there yet, not even close, although more of what they got from both Shannon Scott and Amir Williams Saturday will go a long way in changing that. The Buckeyes will need both of those guys to be game-changers at the defensive end, but if this team turns out to be mediocre – and everything is on the table for this group right now – it will be because of their inability to put the ball in the basket.

“Well, I asked Santa for Christmas to improve our jump shooting,” Matta joked with a serious undertone.

“So we’ll find out. I changed my list.”

LaQuinton Ross
Photo by Jim Davidson
LaQuinton Ross

It was exactly this time last season when Ohio State seemed to be one jump shooter away from being a Final Four contender. Fans were hoping Santa would deliver LaQuinton Ross as the solution to that problem, but a year later the Buckeyes still don’t know exactly what they are going to get from the wide-eyed freshman.

Ross seemed to turn it on when the game was out almost to the point of being statistically out of reach, slicing to the basket for a highly-skilled layup over top of a Jayhawk defender. But Ross has not been the answered prayer many fans were expecting, or at least hoping.

It’s certainly not fair to put the blame on a young kid who did not play much last season, not when older guys are the ones missing shots too, but he was the one guy who was supposed to take some of the pressure of preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas.

“We had wide-open looks, and I trusted my teammates to knock down the shots,” Thomas said after scoring 16 points in the 74-66 loss to Kansas on Ohio State’s home floor last week.

“I trusted my teammates and they had good looks and didn’t go down. I just kept telling them to keep shooting.”

But that wasn’t the answer either. Ross combined with Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and Sam Thompson to make just nine of the 37 combined shots they took on Saturday against the Jayhawks.

The Buckeyes were only 2-of-17 from behind the arc as a team, and while that number will be hard to replicate against even the best defenses in the Big Ten, this team is not suddenly going to have a bunch of great jump shooters fall out of the sky.

No matter how many letters their head coach wrote to Santa.

“All of these guys have shown that they can shoot the ball,” Matta said with a positive outlook.

“Now, is it Jon Diebler-like? Probably not. But somehow, some way, we have to figure out how we're going to play our best on game night, but knowing that they may not go down, so let's find an alternative way.”

The only two real alternatives to making shots are having a dominant scorer down in the post, a guy like Jared Sullinger who can get the basketball possession after possession after possession in a tight game.

Matta would trade just about anything for one of those guys right now, but that isn’t happening this season, and probably isn’t going to develop any time soon – if ever – with guys like Evan Ravenel, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald.

The other alternative is to get out and run in transition. In order to that, however, the Buckeyes have to get stops at the defensive end, and they have to come up with loose balls that lead to better opportunities in the open court.

“We have to continue to get better defensively, because transition is great to us,” Matta said.

“If we can get out and get some easy ones, hopefully it ignites us.”

That’s where point guard Shannon Scott may become the most interesting option for Matta in his tireless search for offense outside of Deshaun Thomas.

Shannon Scott
Photo by Jim Davidson
Shannon Scott

It was Scott, a lightning-quick point guard out of Georgia, who keyed Ohio State’s 14-0 run in the first half of that Kansas game, and it’s Scott, the son of former NBA all-star Charlie Scott, who will have to run the offense until Craft, Smith and Ross figure out how to put the ball in the basket with more regularity.

“I just wanted to come in there and push the pace,” said Scott, who scored a career-high 15 points to go with six rebounds and four assists.

“They weren't getting back on defense at first, so I was able to come in there and do that and create for my teammates. In the second half, they started getting back more, it was harder to do that.”

Teams are going to focus on that aspect of the game, knowing the Buckeyes struggle when the are forced to play in the halfcourt. It’s not going to get any easier. Not with road trips to Champaign, West Lafayette and East Lansing coming around the bend in January.

Scott’s emergence would help. So would hitting some jump shots.

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