Men's basketball: Buckeyes get statement win

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Andy Mannis | Associated Press
Amir Williams and Ohio State defeated a ranked team on Saturday for the first time in nearly two months.

The week that was

It got even worse for the Buckeyes (17-5, 4-5 Big Ten) before it got better. After ending their four-game Big Ten losing streak by defeating Illinois on Jan. 23, they seemed a good bet to make it two in a row at home against last-place Penn State. But the Buckeyes wasted an 11-point, second-half lead and lost to the Nittany Lions for the first time in 10 years, by a point in overtime. That prompted a players-only meeting, finally, which spawned a more cohesive team that won by a point at No.14 Wisconsin. It was the Buckeyes’ first victory over a ranked team in more than two months.

The week ahead

The win over Illinois proved to be fool’s gold. The win at Wisconsin looked closer to the real deal. Do the Buckeyes truly have their mojo back? Their second go-round with Iowa should be telling. Despite Michigan State being their first loss, the Buckeyes’ slide really started on Jan. 12 at home when they lost a nine-point lead in the second half and were matadors on defense in allowing Iowa 44 points in the paint. The “Super Tuesday” rematch should see Iowa charged to atone for a disappointing loss at home to Michigan State on the same ESPN stage last week. Purdue, meanwhile, will be playing its third game in seven days when it visits on Saturday. Purdue lost to OSU 78-69 in the teams’ Big Ten opener on Dec. 31.

How good are they?

No one’s sure, still. This team had a crisis of confidence after four straight losses, something the players said none of them had experienced at any age. Then, Penn State happened, they looked themselves in the mirror and, guard Shannon Scott said, acknowledged they weren’t good enough to even deserve an NCAA tournament bid. That’s rock bottom. Wisconsin was a step forward, but the Buckeyes need to take more steps in that direction that are not interrupted by losses. Whether they stay in the Associated Press Top 25 this week or disappear from it for the first time in four years is immaterial. They need to keep their eyes focused on the next game and not look at the big picture again until March.

Who’s/what’s hot?

The offense again wasn’t a thing of beauty last week, but what’s new? Encouraging was that, as the Wisconsin game progressed, the defense played with some collective pride and, as coach Thad Matta noted, “gave quick help and got back and challenged what we needed to challenge.” In other words, after their meeting, the Buckeyes played like they cared more about each other than themselves, the way they have to play — “five guys connected” — if they’re going to carry this team somewhere the next two months. Amedeo Della Valle and Trey McDonald were unsung difference-makers off the bench at Wisconsin, combining for 17 points in 36 minutes, and Scott played more aggressively off the bench and still was on the floor for 29 minutes, more than anyone but Aaron Craft (30). And say what you will about Craft’s shot, but do you really not want the ball in his hands at the end of games? He admitted he screwed up against Penn State, but he scored seven of Ohio State’s nine points in the last 3:55 at Wisconsin. He had been scoreless to that point but had a game-high four assists.

Who’s/what’s not?

When Lenzelle Smith Jr. rebounded his missed layup, was knocked off his feet by Amir Williams and called for traveling with 8.6 seconds left, giving Wisconsin a chance to win, it was Smith’s Big Ten season in a nutshell. The guy has to catch a break sooner or later, doesn’t he? Some fans want him to be the next starter benched, but it’s not like he’s not trying or he wouldn’t have had his season high of 10 rebounds, which helped prevent the Badgers from rebounding their many misses and running even more time off the clock. Matta said Scott gave up his starting spot to one of his roommates, Sam Thompson, to try to spark Thompson’s game, but Thompson didn’t catch fire. He didn’t shoot a free throw or get a rebound against Wisconsin; in his past three games, he has scored six points on nine field-goal attempts, with four rebounds and one steal. Marc Loving is going through a rough stretch, too. Has he hit the freshman wall?

Outside the lines

In their ongoing efforts to move more Nike product and reap more athletic department revenue, Ohio State and six other marquee college basketball programs will unveil yet another set of throwback uniforms next week.

The one Ohio State will wear in its Feb. 11 game against Michigan at Value City Arena harkens to the early ’90s teams of Jim Jackson and company. The gray tops look virtually identical to those worn by those teams.

But scarlet shorts with the gray tops? That’s a rec-league softball look.

Quotable

“I’m very, very happy and proud of our guys. But we get home, we wash our clothes, pack our bags and we’re going to Iowa on Tuesday.” — Matta, on the significance of the victory at Wisconsin

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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