There are two ways to look at Ohio State’s 71-63 win over Northwestern Tuesday night.
One would be to applaud the Buckeyes (15-10, 7-5 Big Ten) for a tremendous finish to the game that saw them hit 7 of 14 shots from the field, hit 16 consecutive free throws and outscore the Wildcats 32-15 over the final 10:01.
The other would be to wonder what took so long. Wonder why Ohio State struggled mightily for three quarters of a game against a team that entered the contest just 4-7 in Big Ten play, one the Buckeyes had topped by double figures on the road this season. Wonder why Ohio State couldn’t secure a rebound or finish easy shots while hitting just 16 of its first 42 attempts (38.1 percent).
I suppose there is room for areas of grey. Perhaps both outlooks are possible and the end of the Northwestern game will finally propel this Ohio State team to play better and more consist basketball.
That might be the case, but I certainly lean more towards the latter camp. Why can’t this Ohio State team get going earlier in games?
Matta seems to think his team isn’t enjoying the games enough, perhaps the result of a young team overthinking.
“When you lose yourself in just playing the game of basketball and whatever happens, happens we’re a lot better basketball team,” the coach said after the win.
“It was very animated at halftime in terms of that. Just play the game. You guys work so hard in practice, this is the fun time. This is where you get to reap the rewards to it and fortunately we stuck around and we were able to finish it out.”
And as far as using this game as a launching pad for better things to come, that was the line of thinking after a win over Kentucky in December, after an overtime win over lowly Illinois and after narrow home defeat to Maryland. We’ve still not seen the better things to come.
Maybe the Buckeyes will prove me wrong. Maybe a winning streak will follow this and Ohio State will show drastic improvement as Matta teams have a history of doing. If that doesn’t happen, however, it’s not the end of the world.
Even the sport’s best programs miss the NCAA Tournament now and then as this team seems destined to do. Kentucky was left out of the NCAA Tournament just three seasons ago.
Regardless of how the season unfolds the Buckeyes are set to return every player from this year’s team and while I’m doubtful games like the ugly win against Northwestern will reap rewards for Buckeye fans this season, the struggles of this year could very well define next season.
Free-Throw Success: Who was that Ohio State team nailing 16 consecutive free throws to close the game and finishing the night 19 of 23 (82.6 percent)?
Unquestionably the best collective performance of the season from the line for the Buckeyes, it didn’t hurt that Jae’Sean Tate, who entered hitting less than 60 percent, attempted just one from the stripe. Still, Ohio State as a team entered hitting just 65.3 percent from the line. This was a complete turnaround.
“It was a lot of different guys that were knocking them down and those were huge because we were taking it from a one-possession game to a two-possession game to a three-possession game,” Matt said. “I was happy to see those guys do that.”
Amazingly center Daniel Giddens got the streak of 16 consecutive freebies started with two.
Starters Again: Matta inserted JaQuan Lyle and Trevor Thompson back into the starting lineup against Northwestern, and while the entire team was pretty poor early, both played key roles down the stretch.
After Thompson tied the game at 56 late with a left-handed hook shot Lyle hit a huge three to give Ohio State the lead for good.
The second-half response was especially big for Lyle who had just three points in the first half. He finished with a game-high 16.
“JaQuan and I had a one-sided conversation at halftime and I was leading the charge about that,” Matta said. “I give him credit, I think he responded and did a nice job. He had a very, very good control of what he was doing and he was giving off positive energy which was a good thing for us.”
The switch back to Lyle and Thompson made sense. While it took him a while to respond to the benching, Lyle had 27 off the pine against Wisconsin. I think A.J. Harris is a nice complementary player, but Lyle is clearly the bigger talent of the point guards. He just needed a wake up call.
As for Thompson, he’s much more developed offensively than Giddens, who I think will be a phenomenal defensive center before it’s all over. The Buckeyes just need offense right now.
Press Effect: Ohio State’s full-court 1-2-2 press at the end of the game was wildly effective, speeding up the Wildcats pace and forcing five turnovers. The look had been seen sparingly this season from the Buckeyes, but this was its most effective appearance.
“It was just guys flying around, making extra effort plays and just anticipating what was going to happen next and we were staying on our toes which forced them to make some mistakes,” Marc Loving said.
The look wasn’t perfect, and more disciplined teams will take advantage of it. But it got the job done against Northwestern.
“We were in a little bit of scramble mode and we thought it could be effective even though I didn’t know it was going to be quite as effective,” Matta said. “Truth be told, they got, I think six points off of it where we didn’t get matched up quick enough. I think the reward was worth the risk that we took and I thought it really sort of took them out of their rhythm in terms of what they were trying to run offensively.”