Michael Arace commentary: Defense helps Ohio State get on roll at right time
Ohio State defeated Illinois 68-55 in its regular-season finale before a sellout crowd yesterday afternoon. As this is spring break, the Nut House student section did not have quite the same bite, not behind the visitor’s bench, but there was an undeniable verve nonetheless.
The fans understood what they were witnessing. This was the end, or the beginning, of something special.
An hour or so after the roars finally quieted, Ohio State coach Thad Matta was asked to comment on his Buckeyes’ remarkable stretch run. He exhaled audibly.
“I’m so tired, I can’t even answer that question right now,” Matta said. “I’m exhausted and I want to go home and reflect on it.”
It is mind blowing what Ohio State has done with its past five games, all victories. It is difficult to grasp given the volatility of college basketball in general — and the savage Big Ten in particular.
“A lot of people had this team dead to rights a month ago and we haven’t lost since,” Matta said. “Look at what we’ve been through just this week. I’m so proud of this basketball team.”
Just over a month ago, the Buckeyes, then ranked No. 10, traveled to Ann Arbor and took part in one of the better basketball games you will ever see. They lost in overtime to No. 3 Michigan 76-74. A statistical anomaly to be noted: Michigan shot 57.7 percent in the second half against a usually strident Ohio State defense.
There followed a thumping at the hands of No. 1 Indiana in Columbus and a 10-point victory over an unranked Northwestern team with half a roster. Then, they hit bottom with an embarrassing 71-49 loss to No. 20 Wisconsin in Madison.
This was a four-game stretch in which OSU allowed more than one point per possession and opponents shot a combined 49.6 percent from the floor.
The Buckeyes slipped to No. 18 in the AP poll and fell to fifth place in the conference. They were three games out of first place with five to play. Their hunt for a fourth consecutive Big Ten title turned into a scrap for a first-round bye in Chicago.
They looked dead to rights, as Matta said. They were 1-6 against ranked teams. They could not score once the offense got beyond Deshaun Thomas. They struggled with an identity without Jared Sullinger in the low post and gunner William Buford on the wing.
“As players, we kind of got together and talked to each other,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “We believe in the system, we believe in the coaches and, most importantly, we believe in each other.”
The answer was in front of the Buckeyes — it was their defense. The Buckeyes are best when they channel their copious athletic ability to smother their opponents. Matta adjusted. He turned more frequently to a smaller lineup, depending upon matchups, and handed more minutes to guard Shannon Scott.
Their season-closing, five-game winning streak included an eight-point victory over No. 4 Michigan State in Columbus on Feb. 24 and a 67-58 victory over No. 2 Indiana in Bloomington last week. These were signature victories in a season that was once devoid of them. They are a testament to the Buckeyes’ grit.
“I like where we are right now,” Matta said.
They wrapped things up with a comfortable victory over Illinois, a team that had thumped them by 19 points in January.
“It goes by so fast, and that’s the crazy thing,” Craft said. “The fun is about to start. Win or go home, that is what we’ve prepared for.”
They are ready. Surprised?
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.