Behind Enemy Lines: Ohio State

Maryland will play its final ACC/Big Ten Challenge as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Wednesday when the Terps travel to Columbus, Ohio to face No. 3 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are off to an undefeated 6-0 start, but have yet to play their best basketball. Terrapin Times gets the inside scoop on the team from writer Ben Axelrod

Maryland will get its first test of Big Ten basketball when the Terps head out to Columbus, Ohio, to face the third ranked Buckeyes in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday night. To get the inside scoop on Ohio State (5-0), Terrapin Times spoke to the Buckeyes basketball beat reporter Ben Axelrod.

Terrapin Times: The Buckeyes have yet to lose a game this season, but they have not been as dominant as expected. Breakdown this Ohio State team for us?

Ben Axelrod: Scoring droughts were a problem last season and it has continued to be a big problem for them this year. They have some halves where they just couldn't hit a shot. One of the big problems in regards to that has been that they are still trying to replace Deshaun Thomas and the guy they thought could do that is LaQuinton Ross. But through the first five games he is only shooting 22 percent from the field. In addition, Ross has struggled down the stretch of games so he was out for the final 13, 14, 15 minutes of the past three consecutive games.

So the bottom line is, the guy the were counting on to replace their leading scorer and rebounder from last year hasn't been doing that, so they have had to rely on good defense to win games this season. The defense though has been pretty incredible throughout the first month of the season.

In fact, most of their big runs this season have come through defense. They held Wyoming to no points in the final 10 minutes. They aren't a great 3-point shooting team and when LaQuinton isn't hitting his shot (which he isn't) they don't have anyone else who can consistently hit a 3-point shot. So have to rely on [Aaron] Craft getting to the rim; that's really been their bread and butter.

TT: You mentioned LaQuinton Ross' early season struggles, but he was huge for the Buckeyes in the NCAA tourney last season, so he can definitely put up points. What has been the root of his issues this season and does he seem prime for a break out game?

BA: I think its a combination of a lack of confidence and pressure. Ross told me he thought about leaving for the NBA because he had a good NCAA tournament last season. He averaged 15 points and hit a buzzer beater in the Sweet 16 so he put a lot of pressure on himself to boost his draft stock this year. He is a guy when he puts pressure on himself, he has a tendency to press, and we've seen that in the results. He has a handful of 1-for-8, 1-for-7 shooting performances. We know he has the ability, and he finally showed that in the last game when he scored 17 points against North Florida. However, the Ospreys were kind of an undermanned opponent so Maryland will be the first true test.

He is very similar to the player they lost, DeShaun Thomas, and they made for a great one-two punch on the court. LaQuinton is just like DeShaun from a body standpoint, [and] they both have an ability to score. There was a lot of hype around him heading into the season, and he is on the Wooden Award and Naismith Award Watch lists, but so far he hasn't lived up the hype.

TT: Thad Matta's teams have always been tough defensively, but holding No. 17 Marquette to just 35 point on their home court…that's impressive. What's been the keys to the defensive success this season?

BA: Defensively it starts with Aaron Craft in the backcourt and then Shannon Scott, who was an All-Big Ten defender coming off the bench last season, and is now starting this year. Lenzelle Smith Jr. is also a guard, who has been impressive throughout his career. They start three guards, who excel on the defensive end of the court and ramp up the pressure. Then they have some big, long shot blockers in the back court like Amir Williams, a big 6-11 center who has a couple games with four or five blocked shots. LaQuinton [Ross] is a weak defender, but when they bring Sam Thompson in for Ross at the four spot they have their best defensive lineup on the court. Thompson is a 6-6 athletic wing and at the four; he has the ability to get in there and block shots. When Thompson is on the court with Williams, Smith Jr., Craft and Scott, that might be one of the best defensive lineups in the country.

TT: What type of defense have they been playing, is it full court pressure or are they just locking it down in the half court sets?

BA: Just half-court, tough man-to-man defense. When you have a guy like Aaron Craft, who you don't have to worry about getting beat off the ball, and then guys like Amir Williams back there to protect the rim, that's a pretty nice one-two punch. Plus not to mention they have three other guys who are great defenders out there. It just lets them play defense the way defense was intended to be played.

They have a really versatile line p with Thompson in there, and he can guard anyone position one through four on the floor. He can go out on the perimeter and on the post, so they match up well with Maryland in that regard.

TT: Aside from Ross' slow start to the season, what has been the biggest surprise so far?

BA: That would be the play of center Amir Williams. He was a guy who struggled down in the paint last year. He is a 6-11 kid who had the ball slapped out of his hands by some 5-8 small point guards at times last season, but his inside game has really developed and toughened up. Right now he leads the team in scoring, with 11.3 points per game, and he's had a handful of 14-, 16-, 18-point games, which are career-high games for him and are far better than the numbers he was putting up last year. Granted, they are coming against some weaker opponents, so Maryland could be the first true test to see if he is for real or it's fools gold up to this point. But he's pretty much been the biggest surprise and "X" factor this season.

TT: Ohio State assistant Dave Dickerson played at Maryland from 1985-1989 and was an assistant under Gary Williams for nearly a decade until 2005. He was a big part of the 2002 National Championship team as well as the Terps' back-to-back Final Four appearances, so his Maryland roots run deep. Has he expressed any emotions about facing the Terps, not only in this game but more often now that they are moving to the Big Ten?

BA: We will actually talk to the assistants tomorrow, so I am sure Coach Dickerson will have something to say. Thad Matta is so used to playing schools he used to coach at or coaches he used to have on his staff [so] the whole staff tries to approach it as, 'Yeah it's a special connection, but its just another game and those emotions go out of the window once the ball goes up in the air.'

TT: This is obviously a big stage for the Terps as they prepare to move to the Big Ten next season and with the Buckeyes ranked No. 3 in the country right now, but how big of a game is this from Ohio State's standpoint?

BA: This is a big game for Ohio State too. One, because the Big Ten/ACC challenge is always a big game around here, and then there is a neat little connection and a preview for what to expect in the conference in the years to come with Maryland. Columbus is a football town, so not a lot of people are going to be sitting around watching Maryland basketball. They are going to watching bowl games and what not, so this will be their sneak peak at the Terps, and it could affect how people will view this team as they move into the Big Ten. If they put up a fight against Ohio State it could dictate how Buckeye fans view Maryland in the future.

The other reason this is a big game is that Ohio State doesn't really play anyone else big in the non-conference part of their schedule. They already beat Marquette and they play Notre Dame at the end of the month, so the challenge left between now and then is Maryland. So if Ohio State can beat Maryland, there is a pretty good chance they are going to could run the table in the non-conference schedule. And sitting at No. 3 in the country right now, that could put them in an interesting position come January.

TT: Finally, what is your prediction for the game?

BA: I think it will be close especially through the first half. This Ohio State team hasn't shown a propensity to keep their foot on the gas or even start out with their foot on the gas. They kind of find the gas at half time. So it would be tough to predict this team to blow anyone out let alone a formidable opponent at this point.

I think Ohio State will win. They don't lose very often at home and they beat Marquette, who was a pretty quality opponent, on the road. They are probably a little bit better than Maryland at this point in the season. I would give the edge to Ohio State, but I do expect it to be close… It's one of those games that goes down to the final seven or eight minutes and then one of the teams will have to make a run, and I think that will be Ohio State at this point.

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