Rob Oller commentary: Ohio State is showing it lacks will to win

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Thad Matta must feel like the suit-wearing adult seated at the children’s table in those AT&T commercials.

Is it better to go big? Or small?

Is it better for the Ohio State men’s basketball team to play with 6-foot-11 center Amir Williams on the floor, even when the junior disappears for periods of time? Or is it better to replace Williams with a smaller player such as Sam Thompson and rely on quickness to compensate for the lack of size?

These two questions have been at the core of the Buckeyes’ season, discussed around the office, on bar stools and by fans who lean one way or the other.

Big or small?

The answer is simple: It doesn’t really matter.

Big? Small? Thin? Fat? Allergic to cats? It doesn’t matter, because after all the debate and analysis, it turns out the Buckeyes’ problems go much deeper than offensive strategy and defensive tenacity.

This team lacks the will to win. Shocking? Yes, for the most part. One trademark of Matta’s teams has been their ability to play hard in all situations. Up by 20. Down by 10. Doesn’t matter. Or at least it didn’t. Until now.

Don’t take my word for it. This is how senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. summarized the situation last night:

“This hurts the most out of every game since I’ve been at Ohio State,” Smith said after Penn State ended an 18-game losing streak to the Buckeyes by winning 71-70 in overtime at Value City Arena. “We’ve got to get back to being a team and wanting to win.”

He was just warming up.

“As a team, we don’t care enough. It’s embarrassing. Every other team in the conference is laughing at us. They’re on top of the world.”

What exactly, Lenzelle, are the Buckeyes lacking?

“Toughness. Character. Camaraderie. Leadership,” Smith said, making sure to stress that as a senior he takes responsibility for those team deficiencies, which have played a role in the recent downturn.

Want a second opinion? Aaron Craft joined the confessional, saying that Penn State showed more guts when it rallied from an 11-point deficit in the last 7:58 to force OT.

“We weren’t the tougher basketball team tonight. That’s what it comes down to,” the senior point guard said, repeating the explanation a moment later, as if he could not believe it.

Lack of effort is one of the cardinal sins of sports, but it cuts even deeper for the Buckeyes, who lack the talent — at least as shooters — to ho-hum their way through games. Ohio State managed just seven baskets the entire second half and overtime, including only two over the last 8:29 of regulation.

We knew the Buckeyes were offensively-challenged. What’s new are the revelations supplied by Smith and Craft. Or maybe not. Looking back, maybe the lack of want-to was there all along. On Jan. 12 at home, the Buckeyes led Iowa by nine in the second half and lost by 10. Hmm.

“When we get hungry, I’ll take us over any team in the country,” said Smith, who like Craft was on the verge of tears.

Hunger? The Buckeyes’ bellies appear to be full. Where will it go from here?

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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