Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Worthy Of Elite Company?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
I’ve been saying from the beginning that Ohio State is bit overvalued this year.
While the preseason No. 4 ranking was a show of respect for what can now be termed a top-10 program – you can go ahead and tip your cap now, Thad Matta – the 2012-13 Buckeyes are not a top-10 team.
I see too many flaws. Some of them are painfully obvious. Most glaring is the lack of firepower once you get past Big Ten leading scorer Deshaun Thomas, a shortcoming that even the staunchest Buckeye fan can’t ignore.
Free throws are sometimes an adventure. Outside shooting is unreliable. Offensive lapses have bitten down on OSU in all four losses.
Lenzelle Smith has not been a consistent No. 2 scorer. Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott are wonderful athletes but you don’t want them shooting more than a handful of jumpers a game.
Amir Williams still looks raw in the post and doesn’t possess good hands. Aaron Craft and Evan Ravenel show impeccable hustle but play with limitations. LaQuinton Ross remains an enigma.
Yet, here are the Buckeyes, heading into the weekend and a seemingly very winnable game at Nebraska on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) with an overall record of 16-4 and squarely in the thick of the Big Ten race at 6-2 in league play.
A win in Lincoln would put OSU at 7-2 at the halfway mark of the league season, although some very daunting challenges remain, including games at Michigan (Feb. 5), Wisconsin (Feb. 17) and Indiana (March 5).
Now I can’t help but think that 13-5 is attainable and even 14-4 is possible. Why?
Well, first of all, the Buckeyes are outstanding defensively, maybe as good as anybody in the entire country.
Thomas’ star shone brightly again in Tuesday night’s win vs. Wisconsin and he deserved the spotlight after scoring 10 of his game-high 25 points in the decisive 15-0 run in the middle of the second half. But I am still agog at how OSU absolutely caged the Badgers, which I wrote about in this column.
The look on Bo Ryan’s face during that spree was priceless. There’d be no use of the old playbook – hang around, frustrate, steal it at the end – that has worked so well for Ryan over the years. He was outmatched, and he knew it.
Ohio State’s play hasn’t always been awe-inspiring, but its grit has been consistent, and when Thomas is in a zone and Craft is aptly handling the controls the Buckeyes are good enough to beat very good teams.
It’s just that this year’s team is trying to live up to some very high standards. Last season, Ohio State advanced all the way to the Final Four and had a sizeable lead on Kansas before losing by a mere two points. The year before, March brought another painful two-point loss in the NCAA Tournament, but not before the Buckeyes won a whopping 34 games and both Big Ten titles.
That 2010-11 squad was the best I’ve ever covered and, it could be argued, the best to grace campus since the glory days of the Fred Taylor era.
And the 2009-10, Evan Turner-led team had a chance to go far in the Big Dance, too. Oh, did it have a chance. The tournament was as wide open as a Kansas wheat field after the No. 1 Jayhawks were toppled and Ohio State had a very navigable path to the title game if it could have gotten by Tennessee.
Alas, another one-possession loss to an SEC team.
So maybe this year’s Buckeyes are right where they should be at No. 11 in The Associated Press poll, hanging out in the weeds just outside the top 10 and seemingly on the verge of playing their best basketball at the most critical juncture of the regular season.
Maybe Thomas will stay as hot as a firecracker and carry this team the way Turner and Jimmy Jackson and Dennis Hopson did in the past.
Maybe playing at Michigan three days after the top-ranked Wolverines stage their nationally televised fiesta with No. 3 Indiana will turn out to be good timing. No. 1 playing with a hangover – stranger things have happened.
Maybe The Schott will liven up for huge home games with Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State.
Maybe the Buckeyes will draw on their first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium, their opening salvo vs. Michigan and their dominating surge against UW and realize they have the chops to play with anyone and become a clutch outfit.
Of course, we’ve just dipped our toes into February and much, much more has to play out. But maybe a better way of looking at the Buckeyes’ potential worth on the college basketball landscape is to assess the 10 teams currently ahead of them in the AP poll.
It’s a list of college superpowers, but one that suddenly doesn’t seem so far removed from Ohio State.
No. 1 Michigan
Current record: 20-1, 7-1 Big Ten.
Result this week: UM took care of business in a 68-46 win over Northwestern on Wednesday. Point guard Trey Burke led the way with 18 points and eight assists.
Why the Wolverines are scary: Well … John Beilein finally has the team of his dreams in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have a serviceable center in Jordan Morgan and can field four threats on the perimeter at all times now that freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas are in fold. Burke is one of the point guards in the country at running the pick-and-roll and personally foiling defenses. Then there’s Tim Hardaway Jr., who supports Burke’s 17.9 points per game with 15.5 of his own as well as outstanding shooting percentages.
Why they’re beatable: Not many teams are equipped to do this, but if you can cut off the head of the dragon, you’ve got a shot. That’s what Ohio State did in its 56-53 win over UM on Jan. 13. Craft completely slowed down Burke, which allowed OSU’s wings to get out on shooters.
Connection to Ohio State: First there’s that whole arch-nemesis thing. It’s also worth repeating that Burke hails from Columbus Northland and was not on the OSU recruiting radar. But Matta has been very successful against the Wolverines, owning a mark of 17-3 in the series. And they will meet again and perhaps again in Chicago.
No. 2 Kansas
Current record: 19-1, 7-0 Big 12.
Result this week: KU nipped West Virginia 61-56 in Morgantown on Monday behind 15 points and seven rebounds from center Jeff Withey.
Why the Jayhawks are scary: Size and experience. Bill Self’s squad has tons of each and he also has one of the most effective off-guards in the nation in freshman Ben McLemore, the team’s leading scorer (16.1 ppg). He shoots 50.7 percent from the floor, 45.1 from three-point range and 86.7 from the free-throw line. The 7-0 Withey, who was the difference in KU’s win over the Buckeyes in last year’s Final Four, is perhaps the nation’s top intimidator and blocks 4.3 shots per game. The backcourt includes talented veterans Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. This is the best team in the country.
Why they’re beatable: McLemore was injured and out of the lineup briefly, leaving the Jayhawks to appear mortal. Also, they do not have a take-over point guard and have been lulled into several tight low-scoring games. Maybe someone will figure out how to get over the top in the tournament.
Connection to Ohio State: Pain. Kansas defeated OSU without Jared Sullinger last season, ended the Buckeyes’ glorious postseason run in New Orleans, and also posted a 74-66 win in Columbus on Dec. 22. It’s safe to say the Buckeyes don’t want to see Kansas again anytime soon.
No. 3 Indiana
Current record: 19-2, 7-1 Big Ten.
Result this week: IU blasted rival Purdue to the tune of 97-60 at Mackey Arena on Wednesday, perhaps the most frightening result in league play this year. Center Cody Zeller was way too much to handle as he logged 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Why the Hoosiers are scary: They have all you need on the court – shooters, athleticism, an All-American in the post and depth. Victor Oladipo has been outstanding on both ends and the bench has a nice mix of reliability (Will Sheehey) and talented newcomers (Yogi Ferrell and Jeremy Hollowell). Indiana leads the nation with 84.0 ppg and is fifth in field-goal percentage at 50.0.
Why they’re beatable: Because the Hoosiers have so many weapons, they sometimes don’t work the ball enough for good shots and they even forget to dump it inside to Zeller for stretches of games. And while coach Tom Crean has been to the Final Four riding the exploits of a college superstar (Dwyane Wade) it remains to be seen how he handles a team that is this loaded and expected to win.
Connection to Ohio State: Perhaps OSU’s biggest rival on the hardwood, Indiana often has stood in the way of the Buckeyes attaining Big Ten titles. They’re in the way again with two regular-season meetings still on the docket.
No. 4 Florida
Current record: 17-2, 7-0 SEC.
Result this week: UF obliterated South Carolina on Wednesday, 75-36. The Gators held the Gamecocks to 14 made field goals and 31.1-percent shooting from the floor.
Why the Gators are scary: Florida has played laudable defense for much of the season and is one of the top shooting teams in the country despite their usual penchant to fire up three-balls. They do an excellent job of spreading the floor and spreading the wealth. Four players average between 13.6 (guard Kenny Boynton) and 11.0 (post Patric Young) points per contest and a fifth, junior guard Scottie Wilbekin, is at 9.1 ppg.
Why they’re beatable: The Gators are not that imposing on the glass and often allow foes second chances at the basket during possessions. Plus, they’re not comfortable with scores in the 60s, which is what happened in losses to Arizona and Kansas State.
Connection to Ohio State: Matta no doubt still sees the Gator chomp in his sleep as Florida left him one notch away from the 2007 national championship. Even so, he and coach Billy Donovan remain close friends and very respectful of each other.
No. 5 Duke
Current record: 18-2, 5-2 ACC.
Result this week: The Dookies slipped past Wake Forest on Wednesday, 75-70, in a key ACC roadie. Center Mason Plumlee continued his outstanding senior season with 32 points and nine rebounds.
Why the Blue Devils are scary: Another team that can fill it. Duke has its usual array of scorers even with Austin Rivers having moved on to the NBA. Seth Curry (16.0 ppg) has picked up some of the slack, Quinn Cook (11.2 ppg, 6.3 assists per game) is beginning to reach his promise as a point guard, and youngster Rasheed Sulaimon (11.7 ppg) has the look of the next Duke superstar. Plumlee already is handling that role well. He’s contributing 18.1 ppg and also has been terrific on the boards (11.1 rebounds per game) and in shooting (59.6 percent). Forward Ryan Kelly (13.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is yet another difference-maker.
Why they’re beatable: Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t developed bench players such as Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston and often has to ride with his starters. And as good as Duke is, it’s still amazing to think a team could pummel the Devils 90-63 as Miami (Fla.) did just last week.
Connection to Ohio State: Duke rallied for a 73-68 win over OSU on Nov. 28 in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge showcase. The Buckeyes held a 31-23 halftime lead in that game but allowed 50 second-half points. Matta made strong recruiting pitches to Cook, Jefferson and Hairston.
No. 6 Syracuse
Current record: 18-2, 6-1 Big East.
Result this week: SU hasn’t played since its loss at Villanova on Jan. 26.
Why the Orange are scary: There is a lot to like about this team. Even after losing several key players to the NBA and coming off an amazing 34-3 season that came up a win short of the Final Four, Jim Boeheim keeps winning and winning with a different mix of talent. The Orange appear hungry each time they step on the floor, the only setbacks coming by four points. Syracuse, as is tradition, has been testing the patience of opponents with its length and zone defense and also has rebounded exceedingly well on both ends of the floor. In fact, SU’s 42.0 rips per game rank eighth in the country. Brandon Triche leads four scorers in double figures at 14.9 ppg and C.J. Fair has been a consistent force with 13.4 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Michael Carter-Williams has enjoyed a bust-out year with 12.6 ppg and 8.9 apg).
Why they’re beatable: SU lost earlier to Temple and isn’t earth-shattering in the shooting departing, connecting on a rather middling 45.1 percent of its field-goal attempts as a team. Also, the team’s inside depth took a major hit when freshmen big man DaJuan Coleman – a 6-9, 288-pound behemoth – was lost recently because of a knee injury. He’s slated to be out four weeks and 6-8 forward James Southerland is out indefinitely because of an academic suspension.
Connection to Ohio State: Coleman listed Ohio State as one of his three finalists before deciding to stay in his hometown and play for Boeheim. Syracuse fans, though, would have traded him for the 77-70 loss to the Buckeyes in the NCAA regional final in Boston last March.
No. 7 Gonzaga
Current record: 20-2, 7-0 West Coast Conference.
Result this week: Gonzaga wiped out Loyola Marymount 88-43 on Thursday night, emptying its bench in the process.
Why the Zags are scary: Again, it’s offense. Gonzaga puts up 79.3 ppg, good for sixth in the nation, and connects on 51.3 percent of its shots, which ranks second. Coach Mark Few traded up by putting 7-0 Canadian Kelly Olynyk in the post for the departed Robert Sacre – and that’s saying something since Sacre now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. Olynyk, who sat out last season, is leading the way with 18.0 ppg and 6.9 rpg, and is shooting an impressive 65.8 percent from the field – and he’s doing it while playing just 25.1 minutes per game. The Zags also feature versatile senior forward Elias Harris and several guards who can shoot from anywhere on the court.
Why they’re beatable: The program has now reached the stature where it could receive a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament but critics will remain skeptical that the WCC can’t prepare Gonzaga for real postseason glory. Whether that’s true or not, the Zags will need a little bit steadier play from its ball handlers. Kevin Pangos is a shot producer but David Stockton is not making anyone forget about his father.
Connection to Ohio State: The Buckeyes defeated Gonzaga in Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16 last year.
No. 8 Arizona
Current record: 18-2, 6-2 Pac-12.
Result this week: The Wildcats posted a key 57-53 win at Washington Thursday night, making all the right plays down the stretch. Guard Nick Johnson had a team-high 15 points.
Why the Wildcats are scary: The guy on the bench, Sean Miller, is a big reason. He can coach, and he’s bound and determined to make the blue-haired U of A fans quit pining for the good old days of Lute Olson. Forward Solomon Hill is big-time and doesn’t mind having the ball in his hands during must-have possessions. Guard Mark Lyons has been a beast to slow down and keep from getting to the basket while Johnson also is ultra-aggressive. That triumvirate averages between 13.4 and 14.7 ppg. Center Kaleb Tarczewski provides size and steady play while freshman forward Brandon Ashley is well on his way to future stardom. This team has toughness and is no fun to play.
Why they’re beatable: As good as Arizona’s guards are, they sometimes don’t keep the ball moved and go crashing into defenders looking for bunnies. Lyons can be overly emotional and doesn’t always display good shot selection.
Connection to Ohio State: Miller coached with Matta at Miami (Ohio) and under him at Xavier and the two remain the best of friends today.
No. 9 Butler
Current record: 17-4, 4-2 Atlantic 10.
Result this week: Butler took a 75-58 loss on the chin Thursday night at St. Louis, a defeat that likely will knock it out of the top 10.
Why the Bulldogs are scary: This is no longer an up-and-coming program, even in its first year in the A-10. Coach Brad Stevens has been to two NCAA title games this decade and he has his players believing they can return to the Final Four. An 88-86 win in overtime over top-ranked Indiana on Dec. 15 is reason enough to take this team seriously. Five players average in double figures led by Rotnei Clarke (16.7 ppg). Roosevelt Jones, the hero of the last-second win over Gonzaga, is a fearless performer and contributes 10.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 3.6 apg.
Why they’re beatable: Butler’s four losses include a one-point defeat at LaSalle and blowouts at the hands of Xavier, Illinois and St. Louis. They can’t be counted out in March but certainly can be had with a good performance.
Connection to Ohio State: Matta hired Stevens to his staff during his one year as head coach at his alma mater.
No. 10 Oregon
Current record: 18-3, 7-1 Pac-12.
Result this week: Oregon was dropped 76-52 at Stanford on Wednesday. Just when the Ducks rose to the top 10 it appears their residence there will be short-lived.
Why the Ducks are scary: Until this week, they took early control of the race for the crown in the vastly improved Pac-12 with wins over Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA – and they don’t play any of those teams a second time in the regular season. Even with the loss at Stanford the Ducks are in good position to be in the fight for the title, which should only make them more dangerous come tournament time. They possess outstanding offensive balance and set up much of their offense with stingy defense and nine steals a game. Dominic Artis is turning into an outstanding lead guard who can disrupt on the other end.
Why they’re beatable: The loss at Stanford puts up a red flag and so does the fact that Oregon occasionally becomes erratic shooting the ball especially from deep.
Connection to Ohio State: None – unless you go back to the 2010 Rose Bowl when the Buckeyes dumped the favored Ducks and the guy who is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.