Talking Buckeyes with Former NBA Agent
Says Matta May Need Some Tweaks to Jumpstart Ohio State
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It has been an interesting season, to say the least, for Thad Matta and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ranked No. 4 in the preseason, Ohio State has already experienced a seasons worth of ups and downs and it’s not yet February.
The Buckeyes had a game against Marquette cancelled because of condensation, they lost a close battle at Duke and were outplayed by Kansas at home. They went to Illinois and got throttled by former OSU assistant John Groce and the Fighting Illini, but responded by winning at Purdue and knocking off No. 2-ranked Michigan in Columbus.
Matta’s team had a chance to knock off Tom Izzo’s Spartans at the Breslin Center on Saturday, but they couldn’t get a decent shot at the end and fell by three on the road. At 3-2 in the Big Ten, they are still in the hunt for conference championship, but the Buckeyes are now 1.5 back of Michigan State.
There is still plenty of time, and a lot of battles yet to be fought, but there also seem to be some fatal flaws that plague this OSU basketball team just beneath the surface.
“I did think they were overrated in the preseason. In my opinion, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State were the top teams in the Big Ten,” said Joe Kotoch, a former NBA agent with Triton Sports who now serves as the publisher and editor of ProBasketballDraft.com.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I thought Ohio State was more in a transition year. Let’s be honest, Jared Sullinger didn’t go lottery but he was a lottery type of player. Most teams that lose a lottery player of his caliber are going to struggle.”
It has been on the offensive end where the Buckeyes have sent the biggest dropoff without Sullinger and William Buford this season. They are averaging about the same number of points per game as they did last season, a year in which the Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten and made it to the Final Four.
In their four biggest games of the year, however, the Buckeyes are averaging less than 61 points per game. That’s nearly 13 points below their season average, which might explain why Ohio State is just 1-4 in those games against Duke, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State.
“If I’m correct statistically, the number two and three scorers are (Lenzelle) Smith and (Aaron) Craft. Any time you have defensive guys who are stepping up offensively in roles they’re not accustomed to having, shouldering more of the load than they’ve ever had to, I’ve always thought that creates a problem,” Kotoch told The-Ozone.
“It takes away from their defense. That’s part of the other problem. You have two solid defenders and you’re asking both of them to play great defense and also score.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Smith is second on the team in scoring at 10.1 points per game and Craft is third at 8.7 a night, but both players have struggled mightily with their consistency at the offensive end of the floor. Smith in particular has struggled since the Buckeyes entered Big Ten play. He scored 17 in the conference-opener against Nebraska but has just 20 total points in the last four games. He is a combined 7-26 from the floor in those games, including a 4-13 mark from long distance.
That’s not the kind of production an elite team gets from a No. 2 scorer, and the same could be said for Craft, who had all kinds of fits offensively in the first two games of conference play before turning it on with 15 points against Purdue and nine in last Sunday’s win over Michigan.
“One of the traits I don’t like about this Buckeye team is whenever they try to create offense, whether it’s (Deshaun) Thomas, Craft or Shannon (Scott), it seems a lot of times these guys all want to go one-on-one,” Kotoch explained during our phone interview.
“When you have Deshaun Thomas creating offense, what does that mean? He’s putting up shots. It’s not creating for others.”
Thomas was the Big Ten Co-Player of the Week after scoring 42 combined points during Ohio State’s wins over Purdue and Michigan last week. He is leading the Big Ten in scoring this season while shooting over 47 percent from the floor and 42 percent from behind the arc.
In many respects, Thomas has become a one-man team at the offensive end of the court.
“While he’s scoring a robust 20 points a game, you’re seeing a guy who went from being the third scoring option last year to being the first scoring option. There’s a little bit of an effect to it,” said Kotoch, who has done some coaching, training and consulting, but now works primarily as a basketball analyst for ProBasketballDraft, Sheridan Hoops and Fox Sports.
“This team struggles offensively, especially in crunch time, and I think that’s a big reason why. Deshaun doesn’t really know how to create or facilitate for his teammates, and they don’t really have a guy who can take the pressure off him. They don’t have anyone who can move him into a complimentary role, which I think he’s better suited for.”
Kotoch might want to rethink some of that, at least the part about Thomas being a complimentary player, after Saturday’s game in East Lansing. Ohio State’s 6-7 junior scorched the Spartans for 28 points on their home floor.
He was 10-for-20 from the floor and splashed in six threes during a heroic performance for the ages. But when the game was on the line at the end, the Buckeyes couldn’t seem a way to get the ball to Thomas, who had only one shot over the final three minutes of the game.
Even when Thomas did create something for a wide open teammate, they couldn’t capitalize.
“I think this is a team full of complimentary guys in essence playing without a star and they really need that,” Kotoch said.
“That’s why you saw the Buckeyes going all in on guys like Noah Vonleh. They went hard after him, unfortunately they lost out to Indiana and that’s going to be a real concern heading into next year.”
Kotoch sees a lot of potential in backup point guard Shannon Scott, and says Craft will “definitely play in the league,” most likely as a backup point guard. The key to Ohio State’s success, not only this year but also into next year, could lie with sophomore LaQuinton Ross.
He has been one of the most talked about players in a long time at Ohio State, because fans have yet to see what all the hype is about surrounding the 6-8 forward out of Mississippi. He is averaging just 8.0 points per game this season in just under 17 minutes a night off the bench.
Ross did have nine points in 11 minutes against Duke, but he has scored a total of just 21 points in five Big Ten games. A big part of that is the fact he’s averaging under 12 minutes a game in conference play.
“I know he looks uncomfortable right now,” Kotoch conceded, “but once the light bulb goes on for Ross – and I suspect it will be next year with Thomas gone – I think you’re going to see a guy who completely wows people.”
The big question is whether the Buckeyes can find a way to speed up Ross’s development as a player. He appears to be the only other natural scorer on the roster other than Thomas – at least if we’re talking about a guy who is better at the offensive end – and Kotoch believes Matta and his staff need to find a way to get him on the court more consistently.
“I’m not saying you play zone for 40 minutes,” Kotoch said, “but maybe if you’re going to have Deshaun and LaQuinton Ross on the floor for 5 to 7 minutes a half, maybe you make that switch to zone for those 5 to 7 minutes and try to create a lead.”
Matta did bring Ross off the bench at the nine-minute mark in the first half of Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. He played the final nine minutes off the half alongside Thomas, but saw just two minutes of action in the second half.
The Buckeyes will certainly win some games with their current lineup, and should qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but Kotoch sees an early exit unless something changes.
“I have to say they’re kind of who they are, in my opinion,” he said.
“Sam Thompson has been getting a lot of highlight love for his dunks, but beyond that what do you see? I’m going to have to see a colossal change in his game if they’re not going to go with Ross.”
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