When Matt Painter was asked if he noticed anything different about the Ohio State team that lost five out of six and the one that ran its winning streak to three with a 67-49 victory over his Purdue team yesterday, he flashed the wily smile of a coach who has his game figured out.
Should he tell his secret or keep it to himself? Aw, what the heck. . .
“Well, they’re shooting the ball better,” he said. “I always say, ‘It’s a miracle that your offense is better when the ball goes in.’ … Lenzelle (Smith Jr.) goes 4 for 7 (from three-point range). Sam Thompson goes 2 for 2.”
Basketball can be as complicated as we want to make it, but at its core, it’s a simple game. Shooting matters, and when the Buckeyes were slumping, the basket treated the team like a scorned lover. Although they were an imperfect team in a lot of ways, they lost games because they couldn’t knock down a shot when they needed it., and of all of the Buckeyes, Smith was the one who most felt the rim’s nasty bite.
For three seasons, Smith had hit lots of big shots in lots of big games. Since Big Ten play started on Dec. 31, the 6-foot-4 senior had shot below 50 percent from the field in every game — until yesterday.
Painter just might be onto something. Smith hit 6 of 10 shots, including 4 of 6 three-point tries in the second half, to hold the persistent Boilermakers at bay. The biggest one came with 8:34 remaining after a three-pointer from Purdue’s Terone Johnson had cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 48-45.
The fragile line between playing well and playing poorly can be difficult to see. But at that point, it looked more like those bright yellow lines that television uses to mark the first-down distance in a football game.
“It’s a little bit on me because before we started the conference, I was shooting high, something like top 40, 50 percent,” Smith said. “But when we got in conference play, I was getting different looks. Guys were running me off the (three-point) line, and I was just so determined to shoot a three because I knew what I was capable of. It was great defense from other teams.
“I think early in the game (today) I got a few midrangers to go. Once I saw that, I tried a three-ball and it fell for me. And then after that, whether they ran out there on the line or not, I was feeling good. So it didn’t even matter if they were there or not.”
The Buckeyes’ slump can hardly be pinned solely on Smith. His teammates weren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, either. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott were playing like they came down with a nasty turnover virus. And as far as the team’s defense, it wasn’t up to its usual standards.
But it would be silly to say that Smith’s shooting problems didn’t affect the bottom line. His game-by-game shooting figures in the five losses: 3 of 11, 3 of 7, 3 of 9, 4 of 12 and 4 of 11.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta laughed when asked if he ever told Smith to stop shooting.
“I gauge so much of a player’s performance by what he does in practice,” he said. “And Lenzelle has spent an inordinate amount of time working on his shot after practice. He’s got a shooting routine, and I love it when guys have routines and he’s going through it.
“I’ve talked him about how, ‘Hey, we need you to knock those shots down.’ That’s what he does. When he went through that stretch, I look at every shot, and so many of those things were like in and out. So you know it’s right there.”
There have been hints of a thaw from three-point range. Smith has 14 three-pointers in the past six games. He missed 17 of 19 attempts beyond the arc in OSU’s first five conference games.
“It definitely opens things up for us,” Matta said. “We want Lenzelle to take those shots when he’s open. (It’s good) seeing him play like a senior.”
Matta smiled at his impending punch line.
“I expect our seniors to play like that at Ohio State because they usually don’t make it that long.”
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.