ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sometimes the growth of a basketball team is easy to see. Sometimes we have to take the coach’s word for it.
No act of faith is required here. The Ohio State men’s basketball team is clearly getting better.
“I’ve never had a team exactly where I wanted it,” coach Thad Matta said before his team played Michigan last night. “But I do think we’re making strides …”
This isn’t coach-speak. Their performance in a 76-74 overtime loss to Michigan last night was something of a revelation. This was a gritty effort in a tough place to play against the No. 3 team in the nation, an effort that at times was led by sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams, players who probably wouldn’t have even been in the game at that point a few weeks ago.
Matta has a reputation for growing his teams during the season, for having his team playing better in the last half of the conference season and during the postseason tournaments. That seems to be what is happening here, despite the loss.
A team that has at times had difficulty getting more than one player scoring in double figures — guess who — had four last night. Deshaun Thomas scored 17, but Ross had 16, Aaron Craft 11 and Lenzelle Smith Jr. 10. Anyone who has been watching this team regularly would recognize the news flash.
Ohio State played poorly early and fell behind 11-4 and 18-8 in a road scene reminiscent of its first league road game at Illinois, but this was no repeat. In the face of a rabid, “sun-out” Michigan crowd, the Buckeyes kept chipping away and led by a point at halftime, and managed to extend that to eight early in the second half.
But it was clear it wasn’t going to stay that way, and it didn’t, mostly because of torrid three-point shooting by Tim Hardaway Jr., who at one point made 5 of 6 from beyond the arc.
But that is a sidebar. The real news on the Ohio State side is that a team lost in a season-long search for a scorer besides Thomas seems finally to be finding solutions to the problem. Ross not only scored 16 points, but he made key baskets in the second half while the Wolverines were cutting into the Buckeyes’ lead and eventually taking one of their own.
Ross wouldn’t have been in the game at that point a month ago, much less been making huge baskets when the other team charging. Williams’ offensive support was even more surprising. The shot-blocking center has showed little penchant for offense this season, but he had nine points against Michigan, all in the second half.
The Buckeyes scored 31 points in the first half and Thomas had only seven of them. He made a couple of important baskets of his own, but earlier in the season he would have been forced to score almost all of them.
“Coach talked to our team about (how) other people can make plays for this team, not just one player,” Thomas said. “I tell our team to go out there and take a good shot. At this point, we’ve just got to win. That’s all we’ve got to care about. Do the things we’ve got to do to win ballgames.”
The Buckeyes didn’t win last night. Hard as it is to believe, the growth they showed might ultimately prove to be even more important.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.