With a 72-68 defeat at the hands of Michigan State in the books, Ohio State officially suffered its first loss of the 2013-14 season. But unlike some, Ben Axelrod isn't ready to give up on the Buckeyes this early, as he provides his thoughts from the top five showdown between the Buckeyes and the Spartans.
With about 10 minutes left in the game and Ohio State trailing by double digits, the tweets started to pour in. Just as they did prior to the Buckeyes' furious comeback against Notre Dame, people began doubting this Ohio State team, more or less referring to the Buckeyes as a team that has been overhyped and was in the process of being exposed by the Spartans. The remainder of the game obviously proved the doubters wrong, with Ohio State firing off a 20-3 run to force overtime, but one way or another, the Buckeyes picked up their first loss of the season.
Blowout or close win, I really don't care how the loss came. A loss is a loss and it only counts for one game. The basketball season is such a long one that I refuse to read too much into one outing, which is something we saw a year ago when Ohio State followed a 22-point loss to Wisconsin with 11 consecutive victories and a trip to the Elite Eight. Last year's Buckeyes squad was blown out no less than three times and still made a deep tournament run, so I apologize if I refuse to set this team's ceiling on Jan. 7.
As for the good, there was obviously the comeback, where Ohio State had its back against the wall and could have easily tanked. But the Buckeyes bounced back, applying the pressure defense that worked so well against Notre Dame -- and it yielded similar results too. With Craft's leadership -- he's the best in college basketball at that -- I don't see how anybody could count the Buckeyes out of any game, no matter the score or the opponent. The Findlay, Ohio native only added to his lengthy list of highlight reel-worthy plays, diving on a loose ball with one minute remaining, and following it with an inbounds pass-layup off of Adreian Payne's backside. Yesterday was the perfect example of a time where a team would have quit, but it's clear that Craft won't let this team do that.
As for the bad, the Buckeyes should have never needed a big comeback to be in that game, and familiar problems made themselves apparent once again. LaQuinton Ross showed inconsistency as a scorer, tallying just five points on 1-of-7 shooting, and lost his crunch time minutes to Marc Loving. Amir Williams struggled catching the ball in the post, committing three turnovers, and the Buckeyes again went long stretches without scoring. These are problems that Ohio State has dealt with before and it'll deal with them again. For now, this team's identity remains in its backcourt, and until Ross and Williams display consistency, it will remain there.
As for Loving, he again showed plenty of promise, scoring 10 points -- the second most of any Ohio State player. I do think that Thad Matta stuck with him for too long down the stretch, and that was apparent when the stage appeared to be too big for him in overtime. It was a great learning experience for sure, and I think that you could probably take more good than bad away from the true freshman's performance, but I do think that Matta got too caught up in riding the hot hand. Ross had struggled, but who knows what he would have been capable of in overtime, and that ultimately could have been the difference in the game.
If that's what Payne plays like when he's hurt, I'd hate to what he looks like when he's healthy this season.
When it comes to Craft's comments that this team hasn't won anything yet, he's right, although in the first week of January, it's hard to say that many teams have. The Buckeyes can only play who's been put in front of them, and up until Tuesday, there hasn't been a team that they've faced that you'd consider a true test. Asking a team to win on the road against a top five opponent is a lot at this point in the season, and to me, I took away more positive than negative from OSU's outing. Maybe that would have changed had the game been a blowout for the Spartans, but again, I refuse to read too much into one contest in a 40-game season -- good or bad.
Ohio State will have plenty of opportunities to prove itself against quality opponents throughout the Big Ten season, and at this point last year, the Buckeyes didn't have a quality win either. No one would have picked them to win on the road at Indiana or to win the Big Ten Tournament after their blowout loss to the Badgers in February, but they managed to do both of those things and were within a minute of playing in the Final Four. Anybody who thinks that they can gauge a team's ceiling in January hasn't been doing this for very long and is probably in for a surprise. Maybe the doubters will eventually be proven right, and Ohio State's 15-0 start was just the result of not playing anybody good, but that's not something that I think can really be decided before Valentine's Day.
The Buckeyes return to action on Sunday, with a 1:30 p.m. tipoff against Iowa, who is currently sporting a 12-3 record and is ranked 20th in the country.