After the Northwestern game concluded, there was one inescapable thought in my mind – this was a very good win for us. I saw it echoed among several other sportswriters on twitter, but ultimately saw a lot more negativity from the fans.
Why did we play so poorly against a team as bad as Northwestern?
Well, first off, Northwestern is not a bad team. As I pointed out in my preview of the game, this team often makes visiting opponents look, and play, stupid. It did not come as a surprise to me that they made us fight for every minute of the game clock. That’s what these guys do at home.
Northwestern, as you may have heard at some point, is also in the Big Ten. The Big Ten this year is one of the single toughest conferences out there. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that we’re going to have a tough time on the road against a conference opponent. To be honest, we’ve been struggling on the road against opponents all season long – there’s no reason Northwestern was going to be any different, even if we did kill them in Columbus. Home court advantage is a significant factor in college basketball, after all.
Given some of the thoughts drifting around Buckeye Nation, here’s a list of some of the big things I took away from the Northwestern win. They’re not all positive, but they all generally show a positive trend in this team.
1. When this team is focused and confident, they’re tough to stop.
Early in basketball games this season, particularly at home, the Buckeyes have executed very well. They have repeatedly demonstrated that they are capable of jumping out to a big lead, even against quality opponents.
That bore out again versus Northwestern. The surprise this time, though, was that the Buckeyes were able to do it on the road – something they’ve struggled with all season.
Against the Wildcats, they were able to jump out to a quick lead by attacking hard and scoring points in droves. Considering the offensive struggles, dropping 59.3% of their field goals in the first half was a huge step in the right direction, particularly while holding the Cats to only 11 made baskets.
The Bucks managed to do this by finally having players move around on offense, rather than standing still and watching things unfold. By moving around, an offense can often force a defense into awkward defensive assignments. When that happens, the offensive player can take advantage of a shortcoming in the defender – perhaps dribble driving around a bigger player, or abusing a smaller player. It also allows the offense to generate open looks, when the defense becomes mixed up and confused.
Ultimately the offense can manufacture great looks at the basket, without having to hope that the defense will simply give one up. It also prevents having to constantly use the single on-ball screen to open up a shooter from a tough defender.
This was the first step OSU needed to prove they could make. That they could come out away from home and look competent playing offensive basketball, regardless of what the other team wanted to do, is critical for NCAA Tournament play. You win tournament games by playing your style of basketball, and not allowing the other team to dictate play.
2. Jared Sullinger really is as good as we all thought.
Admit it, you had forgotten how good Sullinger really was. Well, he’s a total, absolute monster in the paint, and it showed against Northwestern.
Sullinger dropped 8/15 for 22 points – one behind Crawford, who had the game high – to go with 18 rebounds ( including 11 offensive), 3 assists, and 2 blocks. That is a monumental statline. I honestly do not remember the last time I saw a player pick up double digits in offensive rebounds. Heck, the only reason he didn’t have more defensive rebounds is the Buckeyes shot 50% for the game. Just not a lot of rebounds to go around.
A lot of people will scoff and wave their hands. Sure, Sullinger can do this against Northwestern, but can he do it against someone tough, like Michigan State?
First off, Northwestern is tough at their place. As I mentioned in my preview repeatedly, the Wildcats have done nothing but make teams struggled to beat them in Evanston – including picking up a win over Michigan State this year. While Northwestern doesn’t have a dominant inside presence, they are an excellent defensive team.
The long and the short of it is – it doesn’t matter. Sullinger needed to prove he could play his style of basketball, and he did. Now he just needs to go out there and do it again. Michigan State may be a better defensive team inside, but Sullinger should have the confidence to deal with it.
3. This team can’t close out a game to save its life.
Remember what I said before about dictating play? For whatever reason this year, the Buckeyes get a big lead, and then squander it later in the game by playing into the hands of the opponent. Good examples of this are Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern…I think you get the idea.
The reason why this seems to happen is because the Buckeyes panic. When teams panic, they feel the pressing need to get lots of points right now, rather than just playing their game and letting the points come. Panicking teams feel every tick of the clock, and feel the closeness in the score, and they’re not mentally tough enough to put those thoughts aside. Instead, they let it feed on them.
When that happens you get crappy shots early in the shot clock. Tell me that doesn’t perfectly describe OSU’s offense late in games against teams that are slowly closing the noose. The Buckeyes come down the floor, make a single pass, and then jack a bad, defended shot at the hoop praying it will go down and relieve the pressure. Unfortunately, Brandon Paul does not play for OSU, and those shots usually don’t fall.
Even more unfortunately we don’t have a vocal team leader that can calm the troops down. Senior-laden, experienced teams don’t fall into these kinds of traps because the older players tell the younger ones to focus on playing their kind of game. While it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a comeback, it does allow a team to remain focused on the goal of getting a good shot.
Teams are probably scouting this trait in the Buckeyes right now. They must know that even if we have an early lead, we will squander it late if they can just keep the score close. This will cost us again in the future, until we have an experienced leader to calm the troops down.
4. The team is finally starting to learn how to win with a last second shot.
This is a point that I try to stress as often as possible – close games against opponents, whether they’re weak or strong – are important to face during a season. This is because you are basically guaranteed to face such a game during the NCAA tournament, needing a last second play to keep your season alive. Therefore, it’s critical that your players get the experience of playing that type of game before they enter the tournament, because you simply can’t replicate the emotions of such a time in practice. They have to experience it in a game.
At one point in time, Matta’s teams were damn near lethal in games requiring a last second shot. You may recall: Matt Sylvester vs. Illinois (2005), Mike Conley vs. Wisconsin (2007), Ron Lewis vs. Xavier (2007, NCAA 2nd Round), and Greg Oden vs. Tennessee (2007, NCAA 3rd Round).
Yes, defensive plays count too. It requires just as much confidence in your abilities to make a huge play to block a shot as it does to drain a shot with scant time left.
But it seems like Ohio State is incapable of knocking down these shots of late. Think about: Jon Diebler vs. Purdue (2010), William Buford vs. Kentucky (2011, NCAA Sweet 16), William Buford vs. Indiana (2012), DeShaun Thomas vs. Wisconsin (2012). All of those games were pretty tough losses, some made worse by boneheaded final shots.
In the first two cases, the shot taken was the best we could get. Diebler had a wide open look for three that simply clanged out. And against Kentucky, Buford was the one in position to catch and shoot, unfortunately he was having a rough game and missed the shot by a scant couple inches. In both of the most recent cases though, the shot taken was certainly not the best shot available – that goes double for DeShaun Thomas, who jacked up a terrible three with 14 seconds still on the clock. That shot drew Matta’s ire, and he made it clear that he did not approve of Thomas’ shot selection.
Much of the recent struggles can be directly attributed to the panic I mentioned earlier. Panic leads to bad shots, particularly with time running out. But something changed this week for the better – the Buckeyes made a better decision of where to go with the ball, and managed to get that last second shot.
The answer was (and has been) to get the ball down to Sullinger. Craft did this as quickly as he could, giving Sully 3 or 4 seconds to drop in higher percentage shot. Sullinger put down the layup easily, and the rest is history.
This is a very good sign for the future. Maybe it will mean more next year (if everyone comes back) but it means a lot now too. OSU knows what it has to do late in close games. They know the emotions, they know where they can go, and where they can’t, and it should help give them the confidence to win a tight game like this when it matters most.
While these points may not help us win quality games this season, depending on if the lessons are internalized quickly or not, the general trend is that the team is improving – albeit slowly. Ultimately these lessons will be most important for next season, when the team can make best use of the offseason to clean up some of their issues.
The important lesson here, though, is that confidence is gained while playing tough teams. Young players don’t always have what it takes to make critical plays under pressure, because they haven’t yet understood how to deal with the emotions. The Buckeyes are doing that one game at a time.