It may not have been pretty, but the Ohio State men's basketball team advanced to 3-0 on the season with a 52-35 win over Marquette. After a late night viewing of the game, Ben Axelrod provides his observations and takeaways from the latest Buckeye victory.
"Percentages say we've got to make some more shots. I was more concerned that we kept defending, and that was probably the biggest key to the game." - Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta
Let me start by saying that I got home from Champaign, Ill. last night at about 1 a.m. and fired up the DVR (I love that phrase) to watch this game, so any thoughts that seem wrong or incoherent can be blamed on my ongoing bout with insomnia. Having said that, I didn't think this game was nearly as ugly as the Twitterverse made it out to be as I was stuck watching the Buckeyes' football counterpart fend off the Fighting Tim Beckmans. Could Ohio State have looked better on offense in the first half? Certainly. But this was the Buckeyes' first road game of the year -- against a top-20 team that held the nation's longest home winning streak -- and one that certainly could've gotten away from them at any time. Not only did OSU win, it won big, and added a signature win to its resume a mere week into the season.
Now that we've started with a positive, let's talk about LaQuinton Ross. Not only has the junior forward spent the first week of the season in somewhat of a slump (8 points per game on 26.7 percent shooting), but he was held scoreless against the Golden Eagles and was benched for the better part of the game's second half in favor of freshman Marc Loving. Ross' 0-for-5 first half was a big reason for the Buckeyes' first half struggles against Marquette, and the 6-8 forward certainly hasn't looked close to being the player that we saw break out during last season's NCAA Tournament.
"For what we need from him, he's got to be a little bit better than that," Matta said of Ross. And he's right. Ohio State isn't looking for Ross to be Deshaun Thomas, but they are looking for him to be a big part of replacing him, and inefficient, scoreless nights aren't going to do that. It's entirely too early in the season to give up on Ross just yet, but his struggles are concerning, and could lead to some mixing and matching of rotations and lineups sooner rather than later.
For those asking why Ross didn't play for the final 13 minutes of the game, his benching came after an ill-advised shot in transition that was followed moments later by a make from Marquette forward Davante Gardner -- the player Ross was guarding. In Ross' absence, Loving played a season-high 22 minutes, 13 of which came in the second half.
Loving only took three shots against the Golden Eagles, but his one make was a big one. With a little more than 10 seconds remaining in the first half, Sam Thompson drove the lane, before throwing a weak pass back out to the perimeter to Amedeo Della Valle. Unable to get full control of the ball, Della Valle used one hand to send a touch pass to Loving, who sank a 3-point shot to tie the game at 19 heading into the half. I probably sound like a broken record, but the Toledo product looks well beyond his years from a basketball standpoint, and continues to be a pleasant surprise for this year's OSU squad.
While Loving was solid, the star of the show was Shannon Scott, who took matters into his own hands with an early second half flurry of six consecutive points that helped OSU break open the first significant lead of the game. The junior guard scored a game-high 13 points, making 6-of-12 shots from the field to go along with five steals. Between him and Craft, the notion that the Buckeyes have the two best point guards in the Big Ten might not be an absurd one come January, should Scott continue to impress the way that he has in the first week of the season.
Scott's roommate, Thompson, also had himself a day, matching his best friend's point total with 13 of his own, while adding eight rebounds and three assists. Despite his "demotion" to the bench, Thompson played 30 minutes against Marquette -- the second most on the team behind Craft -- and is averaging 13 points and five rebounds per game through three contests. I was surprised to see him moved to the bench to start the season, but he has the selfless personality to allow such shift to happen and not lose a step. Even when he's on the bench to start the game -- something that typically doesn't last for more than five minutes -- he's the first one up to celebrate a teammate's basket and it's clearly not affecting his play. With Ross' struggles, Thompson's development could prove to be huge for an OSU team in need of all the offensive help it can get.
Another interesting takeaway from the first week of the season has been Craft's transition into an all-around player. The senior point guard is averaging 11 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds in OSU's first three games, not exactly Evan Turner numbers maybe, but the type that justify the hype that constantly surrounds him. Craft nearly notched a triple-double against the Golden Eagles, posting 10 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds, while becoming the first player in program history to record 1,000 points, 500 assists, and 200 steals in his career. Craft may be a polarizing player to some -- for whatever reason -- but I highly suggest just taking a minute to sit back and enjoy his senior season.
Speaking of seniors, the first half steal, dunk, technical-for-taunting combo play from Lenzelle Smith Jr. cracked me up. For those who missed it, Smith took control of an errant inbounds pass and dribbled the ball up the court before finishing a one-handed, and-1 dunk. The senior guard topped off the impressive play by flexing with both arms, a gesture that drew a technical foul and essentially negated the play. When the TV camera panned to Matta for his reaction, he was visibly smirking, despite what seemed like a blown opportunity by a veteran player.
The reason that the play left me laughing was that I heard a story in the offseason about a similar play. When the Buckeyes watched the video that they get from the officials each year highlighting the rules, it was a technical called on Scott that was used as visual evidence to explain the taunting rule that Smith was called for on Saturday. Rather than chastise Scott for the unnecessary foul, Matta commended him, telling the junior point guard that that's the type of emotion that he likes to see from his players. Whether you agree or disagree with Matta's attitude is up to you, but the players on this team seem to know what they can and can't get away with when it comes to their head coach.
Another promising trend to take away from Milwaukee: the play of the Buckeyes' big men. At the risk of being wishy-washy and overreacting at the same time, I think that I was dead wrong in my last observations piece to say that Trey McDonald will ultimately fall out of the rotation, as he is the team's only true backup post-player and is also showing signs of being a capable contributor. Not only did he have a nice finish early in the second half, but I noticed him do some of the little things that keep a player in the rotation throughout the season.
On one play in particular, Craft came down with a rebound and tried to go behind his back with the ball in one fell swoop. Nine times out of 10, Craft gets away with that, while leaving people like me who can barely dribble with their head up in awe. This time, however, the ball got knocked loose, but not only did McDonald have the awareness to grab it, he shielded it from defenders and got it back to his point guard safely. Might seem easy enough, but those plays and saved possessions can be the ones that decide close games in February and March.
I thought Amir Williams also looked good, connecting on his two field goal attempts -- one a wide-open dunk out of a timeout, and another being a hook shot over a defender in the post. The latter was the type of play that the Buckeyes have been missing in their offense since Jared Sullinger went pro, and while it might not be a staple, every weapon that the OSU offense can gather is a plus right now.
Williams was also dominant defensively, recording five blocks and adjusting several other shots. Like Ross, it's too early to make a fair assessment on Williams' offseason progress just yet, and while he still gets too many balls knocked from his hands for a player who's 6-11, he appears to be trending in the right direction early on.
While this assessment was overwhelmingly positive, the Buckeyes weren't without their faults on Saturday. Three-for-18 from 3-point land won't get the job done in Big Ten play, nor will 5-for-15 from the free throw line. Ultimately, Ohio State rallied back from a sloppy shooting performance in the first half to convert 57.7 percent of its attempts in the second, while limiting the Golden Eagles to an 18.9 shooting percentage from the field for the entire game. The Buckeyes walked away from a hostile environment with a 17-point victory over a top-20 team and will now likely be favored in every game that they play from now until the start of Big Ten play. Worst things have happened after 26.9 percent first half shooting performances, and even if it happens again, Ohio State is showing that it has the defense to overcome such showings.
The Buckeyes return to action on Wednesday for a 7:30 p.m. home tipoff against the Eagles from American University.