Either by necessity or by design, Thad Matta gave Ohio State basketball fans a brief glimpse of the future Thursday night in the N.I.T. Championship. At one juncture, midway through the second half, the Buckeyes were playing three freshmen and a pair of sophomores.
But first, the future was now.
Though Matta, fans, the ESPN announcers and probably anyone else watching the game were holding their collective breaths until the final horn sounded – a compliment to Massachusetts' scoring ability, you couldn't help but think about the contributions of the young Bucks in the 92-85 victory.
For the second time in school history, Ohio State won the N.I.T. title. That capped off a 24-13 season, including wins in seven of the last eight games to close out the season in style – sending senior point guard Jamar Butler out victorious and as the Ohio State all-time leader in wins.
Butler certainly did his share (19 points, seven assists) but several first and second-year Buckeyes stepped up large for a team that has five players averaging double-figures over the last eight games.
"You know, we knew there were going to be some growing pains as we went through the season, especially with the schedule we were going to play," Matta said in his postgame press conference. "To watch them come together and gel and play team basketball, very, very proud of them and very gratifying."
It was Ohio State's youngest players, however, that sent the loudest message: watch out next season.
That message, of course, is contingent largely upon 7-1 Kosta Koufos returning to school for another year. Koufos, especially with the way he finished the season, will be listening to another summer of professional overtures from his family's native Greece as well as an even more pressing decision – whether or not to declare for the NBA.
That decision, which will not need to be made for a few more weeks, could determine whether Ohio State gets back to the NCAA Tournament next season, but more specifically, whether it's a real contender for a Big Ten Championship and high seed in the big dance.
Koufos finished the Championship with 22 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in earning the tournament's most outstanding player award. His frontcourt freshman running mate, Dallas Lauderdale, had perhaps his finest game all season – a miniscule 2 points, but four rebounds and three blocks in a key 9-minute stretch played in the second half.
Should Koufos return, the two will pair with incoming McDonald's All-American center B.J. Mullens to comprise arguably the most talented frontcourt in America next season. Freshman Evan Turner and sophomore David Lighty showed flashes of next year's backcourt potential in the N.I.T. championship run.
Turner finished with a stat-sheet-stuffing 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals. Lighty had 8 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Both finished the tournament with 17 assists (3.4 per game).
For the second consecutive season, Lighty could be dubbed "Mr. March" after his postseason performance. He scored 10.8 points per game in the N.I.T. and raised his level of play similar to last season's march to the Final Four, where Lighty was an unsung hero for his energy and several key plays in wins against Xavier, Tennessee, Memphis and Georgetown.
But Massachusetts was a horse of a different color.
The Minutemen play a unique up-and-down style that wears teams down with their length, athleticism and uncanny shooting ability. UMASS was one of the top five teams in the nation this year in tempo, employing a tough full-court press and effective zone-busting 3-point accuracy.
However, despite being down 10 on two occasions in the first half, and 41-36 at halftime, the Buckeyes withstood every punch UMASS delivered thanks to some timely 3-point shooting of their own early and exerting Koufos and Othello Hunter inside in the second half.
"To be honest with you, it's one of the best games I've seen them play," said Massachusetts head coach Travis Ford after the game, noting he had watched 10-12 Ohio State games in preparation of the Championship game. "I thought it took one of their best efforts to beat us. They shot the ball tremendously from the 3 point line, they made plays, they withstood some of the pressure that we caused on both ends of the court which a lot of the teams have been able to do so that's a credit to Ohio State."
Though Ohio State committed 19 turnovers in a game that featured nearly 80 possessions, the Buckeyes shot a blistering 55.2 percent from the field, including 10-of-19 from 3-point range. It was just enough to compensate for 12 made 3-pointers for Massachusetts, and more importantly, an astounding 30 offensive rebounds for the Minutemen.
"We tried to employ a new technique tonight: not let them get an offensive rebound and guard them again and we started seeing more and more teams do that across college basketball," joked Matta on the skewed rebounding numbers. "That may be a Madison Square Garden record, 30 offensive rebounds and you (media) guys were all patting me on the back for (giving up) 20 the other night."
When Massachusetts Had the Ball
*In the first half, UMASS was getting nearly every shot they wanted, thanks to wide-open entry passing to the post players and easy penetration from guards Chris Lowe and Ricky Harris. By extending the zone, covering the baseline and playing tighter on the wings, Ohio State was able to take away many of the passing lanes available to the Minutemen early on. Specifically, Ohio State tasked Butler with face-guarding Lowe at the top of the key, taking away the dribble penetration almost the entire second half – with the only notable exceptions when an OSU defender failed to hedge off a high ball-screen.
*Though UMASS actually made more 3-pointers in the second half (7) than the first half (5), it took 12 extra attempts to do so – a credit to the Buckeye defense. Beyond the obvious job of denying the interior pass, Ohio State typically got a hand in a shooter's face the second 20 minutes unlike the first half where they were getting wide-open looks. The 6-2 sophomore Harris, who averaged 18.2 points per game this season, was simply unstoppable on his way to 27 points.
*Ironically, in a gameplan designed to wear down the opposition, it looked like a few of the Massachusetts jump-shooters (sans Harris) were the ones looking fatigued toward the end of the game. Ford said of Ohio State afterward that he was impressed with OSU's conditioning, and felt a big key was breaking the full-court pressure enough to get some easy lay-ups, and not have to rely on the 3-pointer late in the game (which usually declines due to fatigue).
*It's simply unimaginable a team can have 30 offensive rebounds (18 more than their opponent), take 30 more shots than their opponent and yet still lose by seven points. That's what happened to Massachusetts Thursday. Give them credit, however. They were as quick to the ball as probably any team Ohio State faced all season. Their frontcourt, consisting of fifth-year seniors Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower and Dante Milligan were all in the 6-7 to 6-9 range, long and strong. Brower alone accounted for 13 rebounds (nine on the offensive end).
*A big key for the Buckeyes appeared to be their presence defensively inside. Blocking 11 shots by Hunter, Koufos, Lauderdale and Turner, Ohio State intimidated and altered many other attempts inside by UMASS, forcing them to shy away from the interior a lot more in the second half. It also appeared the Minutemen were influenced by the efficiency in which Ohio State was making perimeter shots, seemingly tempting them to keep up by taking more 3-pointers.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*While Ohio State was blocking and adjusting several shots on the defensive end, ironically enough, Massachusetts was unable to do the same. UMASS was in the top 10 nationally in shots blocked, but because of the job Ohio State did getting the ball up floor before the defense was set, Hunter and Koufos scored without being bothered much in the second half. Another huge factor was that the UMASS front line – Forbes, Brower, Milligan and Luke Bonner were all saddled with early foul problems, and it noticeably played a role in their being less aggressive defensively.
*Ford's comments about Ohio State avoiding tempo-related fatigue may have also played a big part in Ohio State's success. In the first half, it was the 3-pointer that kept Ohio State competitive, twice coming back from double-digit deficits with clutch outside shooting. But as the game slowed down in spurts during the second half, the Buckeyes stayed crisp on offense by breaking the Massachusetts pressure and capitalizing on transition by scoring easy lay-ups before the defense could get set. Had the Buckeyes been playing from behind much of the second half, and the tempo stayed the same, Ohio State may not have been as effective with the perimeter jumpers – leaving them vulnerable to tired legs.
*Matta may as well have put up a big sign to Koufos saying: "here's what we want from you next season if you rejoin us." It was clear Thursday, and in the past several games, the focus he has made playing Koufos on the baseline and getting chances to square up to the basket. Lauderdale has received more minutes because of it, splitting time with Hunter in the post, and in return, Koufos has answered the call making shot after shot from 15-20 feet.
*There was good news and bad news Thursday evening in watching Turner. The bad news is that he committed eight turnovers – an inexcusable number in any pace against any team, especially for a guy that aspires to continue logging time at point in the coming year(s). However, despite the turnovers, Turner actually handled the pressure remotely well, never lost composure, and was tasked with bringing the ball up the court a lot more often than one would have expected. Perhaps the UMASS pressure accentuates the one drawback to Turner playing point, but once he gets into the halfcourt set, Turner has been effective in running the team.
*Speaking of Turner, his perimeter shot finally found him once again. Turner went 3-of-3 from 3-point range Thursday. With the emergence of him and Lighty, Ohio State should have a formidable backcourt next season with sophomore Jon Diebler expected to improve and freshmen William Buford and Walter Offutt. Shooting, which has been the occasional Achilles Heel on the offensive end this season, would greatly benefit Ohio State if Turner and Lighty continue their recent improvement. Diebler's contributions would be a bigger bonus.