Rob Oller commentary: Buckeyes need to stop niceties, get mean streak
Thad Matta describes his Ohio State men’s basketball players as nice guys you can invite to your house without worrying they will break the furniture. No fights. No arguments. Just good times with good people.
The same goes for the Buckeyes’ locker room, where the players get along so well that seldom is heard a discordant word.
For this, Matta counts his blessings.
“They’re such a good group,” he said.
But is it asking too much if just once these OSU angels would take a swing at one another? That’s not me talking. It’s Matta.
“Sometimes, you literally wish a fistfight broke out or something,” the Buckeyes’ coach said yesterday.
Make no mistake, these nice guys are not going to finish last, but the lack of a vocal leader who calls out teammates helps explain how Ohio State could lay such an egg at Wisconsin on Sunday, losing to the Badgers by 22 points in a lackluster effort.
The players said they embarrassed themselves, the program and the university by giving such a half-hearted effort against Wisconsin. They vowed it would not happen again, that tonight’s game against Minnesota at Value City Arena would be different.
It would have to be because the Golden Gophers play the most physical brand of ball in the Big Ten.
“I expect a war,” Sam Thompson said.
“It’s going to be a war,” Lenzelle Smith agreed.
If only a similar military theme was present inside the Ohio State locker room, then the Buckeyes might be trending upward instead of having lost three of their past four games. What this team needs is a drill sergeant outside the coaching staff, someone like David Lighty, whose reputation as a tough-love leader helped Ohio State maintain its edge in 2009-10 and 2010-2011.
The assumption is that guard Aaron Craft is a leader who brings the same in-your-face attitude to the locker room that he brings to his defense. But Craft simply is too much of a gentleman to call out teammates. He did call a starters-only meeting last season, but generally, his off-the-court demeanor is similar to his game in that he allows others to go on the offensive.
Unfortunately for OSU, no one else goes on the offensive, either. This season, the Buckeyes employ leadership by committee, which is a watered-down way of doing things. One respected voice stands out better than group noise. Ohio State appears to lack the internal intimidator it needs.
That said, expect the Buckeyes to come out frothing against the Gophers, like they did last month against Purdue after getting clubbed by Illinois 74-55 in Champaign. Ohio State can get after it when its pride has been bruised, and Wisconsin certainly turned the scarlet and gray black and blue.
But can the Buckeyes sustain the aggression? And even if tonight goes well, what then? What, or who, will keep them clawing into March?
“The one thing that comes and bites us in the rear end is we don’t come with the same mindset every game,” Thompson said. “The one thing we need to work on, and we’ve needed to work on for the entire season, is getting our minds right and being ready to play every game.”
Matta and his staff can scream, yell, encourage and threaten, but it is the stern voice of a teammate that needs to set the Buckeyes straight when their effort slumps. Peer pressure is a wonderful motivator.
Watching this strange season, in which Ohio State looks so good one game and appears lost the next, it strikes me that what the Buckeyes need is to get nasty and stay angry.
It won’t come naturally. This bunch is too nice to knock you down. But someone needs to put on the boxing gloves. In the Big Ten and into March, it is better to be respected than liked.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.