First Thoughts: Northwestern

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Last updated: 02/28/2013 11:49 PM
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Men's Basketball
First Thoughts From Ohio State's 63-53 Win at Northwestern
By Tony Gerdeman

Same as it ever was.

The Buckeyes gritted out another win against Northwestern, just as they normally do. It's rarely ever easy, pretty, or dominating, but it's still almost always a win.

The good thing for Ohio State is that they've come to expect these types of games from Northwestern. That's why Thad Matta exploded in Evan Ravenel's face, turning so red that you could see actual heat waves coming off of Matta's forehead.

If Ravenel had been holding a piece of cheese in front of Matta's face, it would have melted from just being in the vicinity.

Blowing up like that is not Matta's usual approach during a game, but he knew that a technical foul in that situation could have absolutely cost the Buckeyes the win. Yes, Ohio State won by 10 points, but they were only up by four points when Ravenel almost lost his cool.

Winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, but it's even more ridiculous this season. Just ask Michigan.

Matta was counting the minutes, just wishing the clock would move quicker. He wanted to get out of Evanston as quickly as possible, and he expressed all of those thoughts in a much more forceful manner to Ravenel.

In doing so, he also expressed it to the rest of his team by proxy. Northwestern took the lead twice after that episode, and each time the Buckeyes stole it back immediately. They were as aware as Matta that this game could turn at any moment, and they didn't want to give Northwestern anymore momentum than they already had.

The Buckeyes closed the game out very well, holding the Wildcats to just four points over the final four minutes. It's a proven fact that you will never lose a lead if you can keep the other team from scoring, and Ohio State did their best to keep Northwestern off of the scoreboard.

The Bottle Rocket. Back in college me and my roommate drove down to Cincinnati to see a show at Bogart's. The Bottle Rockets were opening for Jason and the Scorchers. We weren't overly familiar with Jason and the Scorchers, but the Bottle Rockets were a favorite of ours.

Needless to say, the Bottle Rockets tore the stage off of the place. After they got done, Jason and the Scorchers came out about a half hour later and did what they do. They had a couple of guitar players spinning their guitars around like they were drum majors. After a song or three, we agreed that this pretty much sucked, and so we left.

The reason I mention this is because Lenzelle Smith was the Bottle Rockets tonight, and Deshaun Thomas was Jason and the Scorchers.

Even though Thomas got the first bucket for the Buckeyes, it was Smith who opened the show with three consecutive three-pointers. He ran from baseline to baseline, taking open shots, not forcing anything, and looking like the type of player that we expected to see all along this season.

He was a complete pain for Northwestern to handle – he also had four rebounds and a steal in the first half, and when he is that much of an annoyance to the opposition, the Buckeyes are going to be hard to beat.

Smith went 4-5 from three-point range in the first half, which means that he went 2-6 in the second half. He fell in love with the ease of the three-pointer, almost taking it for granted. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, he eventually found his shot again, hitting his final two three-point attempts, including the one that gave Ohio State a lead that they wouldn't relinquish again.

In the end, he scored a season-high 24 points in 38 minutes. The 38 minutes were five more minutes than he had played in the last two games combined. It was the first time he played over 30 minutes in a 40-minute game in a month. The 24 points were three fewer than he had scored over his last four games combined.

The frustrating part for Thad Matta is that this game may end up meaning nothing for Smith. He obviously can't expect him to perform similarly to this on a regular basis, which means he can't really put any expectations on him other than the 6.6 points per game he had been averaging over his last five games.

It would be nice for the Buckeyes to be able to think that this could be the start of something. However, it's more likely to just be the start of Smith shooting more threes. Whether they go in or not is the unknown.

Smith has scored double figures in three straight games just once in his career, and they were the last three games of last season. He has also gone three games in a row without scoring in double figures three times this season.

Expectations are a scary road where Smith is concerned, which is why a game like tonight is both frustrating and a blessing. It's a blessing because it allowed the Buckeyes to get a win, but it's frustrating because who knows when it will be seen again.

Imagine how much better the Buckeyes would be if Smith wasn't just an opening act.

His Shot is Shot. By my quick count, Ohio State is 14-3 when they have at least two players score 14 points or more. The losses are Kansas, Indiana and Michigan. That means they are 7-4 when they don't get such scoring.

Honestly, those three losses are all quality losses, and it's actually good news that the Buckeyes were able to produce multiple scorers. Of course, it's bad news that even with multiple scorers, they still weren't able to beat those three teams.

The reason I mention this is that the need for a second scorer grows with every game because Deshaun Thomas has lost his perimeter shot. He may find it again, but there's absolutely no doubt that it is currently gone.

Over his last 10 games, he's 10-46 (21.7%) from three-point range. That's a lot of empty possessions going through the hands of the guy who needs to score more than anybody else.

He hasn't shot 50% from the field since a 10-17 outing against Wisconsin on January 29th. That's eight-consecutive games where he has missed more shots than he has taken. He has shot 50% or better in Big Ten play just five times in 16 games.

The worrisome part for the Buckeyes is that finding a second scorer may not matter if Thomas continues to miss the 10 shots per game that he is missing over his last eight contests.

However, no matter how poorly he is struggling, he still finds a way to take over late. He can be 4-12 before the final four minutes of the game, but he'll finish 7-15. One of the reasons for this is that he isn't just settling for 20-foot jumpers. He's working in the paint for the easiest bucket that he can find.

Like all great headliners, he saves his best for the encore portion of the show.

Small Comes Up Big. Thad Matta went to the Buckeyes' small lineup against Northwestern again, and once again it paid off.

With 9:42 to play in the game, Matta went all-in with the small ball. Trailing 41-40, the Buckeyes went to the four-guard look, with Deshaun Thomas playing the de facto center.

All Thomas did in that final 9:42 is score 11 of his 19 points, showing once again that the closer he is to the basket, the more effective will be.

Overall, Ohio State outscored Northwestern 23-12 with the small lineup to close out the game, so not only did their offense put up a 100-point pace, but the defense was just as effective, keeping the Wildcats to a 50-point pace.

Quick Thoughts. I really thought Amir Williams would be averaging more than 1.4 blocks per game this season. His defense just hasn't advanced much from last season. He has trouble one-on-one with post scorers, and his help defense is generally a step or too late. Last season, it wasn't crazy to watch Williams play and see a Ken Johnson type. Right now, however, he's developing at a much slower pace than Johnson did. He is still just a sophomore. ...Shannon Scott led the Buckeyes with eight assists, and Aaron Craft added five. While I was looking to see what Ohio State's record was with two scorers at 14 points or better, I should have also checked to see their record with two players recording at least five assists. Just assume that it is good. ... Northwestern shot 42.1% from three, but it sure didn't seem like it. I guess it helps when they're not routinely throwing up contested prayers and having them answered. ... I took some grief on Twitter following Ohio State's loss at Wisconsin for saying that even in what some would consider a "down year", the Buckeyes would still win 25 games. People asked me where those wins would come from. Well, three of them just came from Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern.

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