After Ohio State fell to Wichita State in the Elite Eight last season, it is remarkable how many people thought that loss was a reflection of the team’s weak nonconference schedule.
As a guy who has beaten the drum for Cincinnati, Xavier, Dayton and others to be included on Ohio State’s nonconference schedule for so long that my ears never stop ringing, it would please me to say that OSU would have shot better against the Shockers if only they had played a few more good opponents in November and December.
I can’t. By the time the Buckeyes got to the postseason, they had spent three months playing some of the best college teams in America in the Big Ten. They probably were more ready for Wichita State than the Shockers were for them; they just couldn’t get their shots to fall.
Ten months later, a variation of that theory is making the rounds again. And if you were there the night Ohio State hammered North Florida 99-64 or Bryant 86-48 or Louisiana-Monroe 71-31, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched:
Could it be that after devouring all those airy cupcakes, the 15-0 Buckeyes weren’t ready for the Big Ten meat-grinder that dealt them an unexpected five losses in six games?
“No,” junior forward Sam Thompson said.
“I don’t think so, either,” senior guard Aaron Craft said. “We have guys who have been through battles here and have played in big games, so it’s not a scheduling thing at all.”
This is one of those things that seems like it should be true and isn’t. The Buckeyes’ had the eighth-toughest nonconference schedule out of 12 teams in the Big Ten and 100th out of 341 in Division I. The only team that was ranked in the top 10 — No 7 Marquette — quickly fell out of it and hasn’t been back.
They breezed to 15-0 and then hit a wall that included one unexpected loss after another. One came at home against Iowa, which they meet in a rematch tonight.
“I don’t know how anybody could say that’s the problem,” coach Thad Matta said of the early schedule. “I think in the games that we played early, we saw a lot of different challenges. We were playing at a pretty high level in terms of those games. But I also believe, and I’ve said this, there wasn’t a time last March when I said, ‘Oh, the Duke game.’ … No, no, no, no, no. (It’s not the Duke game). ‘What do we have to do at this particular point, and who we’re playing (now).’ ”
Craft’s point is worth considering: Among the Buckeyes who get most of the playing time, only freshman Marc Loving and sophomore Amedeo Della Valle are without experience in huge games against top opponents.
The weak nonconference schedule theory might have more validity if this were a team of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.
“There’s no question about that,” Matta said. “I remember years ago when Jamar Butler was a freshman and the look in his eye. His first Big Ten game, he was like blown away. And to his credit, he was a tough kid and played his way through it.
“I think that’s been the thing that has made me scratch my head a little bit. With a veteran team and the positions we’ve been in, and some of the losses that we’ve had, that we haven’t been able to fight through it. But with that said, I think we’re playing against some really good teams.”
Senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. isn’t in a shooting slump because he had it too easy against Morgan State (89-50). Craft and Shannon Scott haven’t been sloppy with the ball because Central Connecticut State (74-56) was on the schedule instead of Kentucky.
This should not be considered as support for the Buckeyes’ weak nonconference schedule. Ohio State should play a better schedule for the paying customers, who shouldn’t be treated like suckers who buy almost anything because of their loyalty. They shouldn’t be fed a bunch of games against opponents who have no chance of winning.
But if the Buckeyes don’t win once they get into the Big Ten or the postseason, it’s not because of the schedule. It’s on them.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.