Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

By Ramzy Nasrallah on February 19, 2014 at 11:15a
Sully couldn't even show his face

Aaron Craft was eight years old when the century turned.

Jim O'Brien and John Cooper were coaching the two Ohio State teams you love the most. Bill Clinton was finishing his presidency. The Nintendo GameCube was born.

As a nation were still basking in the afterglow of improbably surviving the Y2K bug that was scheduled to pluck airplanes out of the sky and send civilization into its own blue screen of death. 

Sparty conquered the NCAA tournament that memorable year, beating Florida in Indianapolis and closing the Big Ten's basketball title gap at 11 seasons. That little drought swallowed three of Bob Knight's very best Indiana teams, two of Jimmy Jackson's Ohio State one-seeds and a Buckeye Final Four team, a Purdue dynasty, Minnesota's best team ever and, oh right, the Fab Five.

Wisconsin was Michigan State's Final Four opponent en route to that title game, just as Illinois and Michigan had engaged in national semi-final fratricide when the previous title drought - which lasted one whole season - was ended by the Wolverines. Two years prior to that Indiana took apart top seed UNLV and then Syracuse to win its second title in seven seasons.

Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and Illinois have all managed to win five tournament games in a row since the Spartans won those six in 2000, but the doorstep is as close as the Big Ten has gotten to keeping its title t-shirts from being hastily shipped off to Guatemala. 

You wonder when those shirts will get to stay in America again. Mostly for Ohio State, but also for the conference which is as strong as it has ever been. The respective droughts have reached 53 and 13 years.

The Thad Five came within a game of bringing Ohio State its first national title since 1960.

The Buckeyes have won at least 20 games in each of Thad Matta's 10 seasons including the current one, which feels mildly disappointing to anyone who isn't a computer. That's because humans saw them lose six games on the current calendar prior to Valentine's Day with four of them happening in succession.

Regardless of what humans may think of the Buckeyes, the computers love'em as much as Brutus does.

Ohio State is 14th in the Sagarin, 15th in RPI and 13th in KenPom, which carries five Big Ten teams among its top 20. Still, the Buckeyes' season goal has been downgraded from win the B1G to hey let's get a bye in the B1G tournament.

This team doesn't carry the same Final Four gravitas the previous four did. It lacks a National Player of the Year (Evan Turner) a dominating post presence (Jared Sullinger) and most importantly, hot-streaky shooters (William Buford, Jon Dielber, David Lighty and Deshaun Thomas).

Regardless of what humans think of the Buckeyes, the computers love them.

There is no matchup nightmare facing Ohio State's opponents. You don't have to pick your poison, collapse on the post, double any shooter in particular or disrupt an offensive flow or tempo. The Buckeyes have the look of an elite rec team with no superstars, which forces any or all of its spotlight-averse individuals to team their way to victory.

You just have to force the Buckeyes to shoot baskets. And unfortunately, this is basketball.

Hate you, Withey.
Relentlessly cold shooting has hastened the Buckeyes' tournament exits in recent years.

They're just good enough to not be great. Craft is the face of this team, but that's a function of him bringing equal parts longevity and poor man's Tim Tebow-ness to college basketball's table.

Good enough to not be great is kind of a B1G theme this year. It's really, really good - but will likely watch the title game in April - and quite possibly the Final Four - at home with the rest of us.

ESPN has been very effective in aggregating viewing audiences under the guise of conference pride, like Purdue winning a title is supposed to make you feel better about Ohio State. Still, since Sparty's magical 2000 run ACC teams have taken five titles, the Big East has four, the SEC has three and Kansas of the Big XII has the other one.

It feels kind of empty around here. Football is one thing; this should be easier.

The conference's longest title drought since the tournament's inception is the 16 year stretch between Fred Taylor's 1960 Buckeyes and Knight's perfect Hoosiers of 1976. Current drought stands at 13, which is second-longest and the biggest gap between titles since the tournament expanded to 64 teams however many meaningless play-in games there are in Dayton now.

Michigan and Michigan State both managed to win six straight in conference play this year. The Spartans have currently lost four of seven and the Wolverines have dropped three of five. The Badgers, who beat both of them last week, lost five of six in January including three at the infamous Trohl Center in Madison.

Ohio State had that four-game slide. Iowa may be the strongest team in the conference, but it will struggle against any top team with formidable guards and outside shooting - something it largely avoids in conference play. 

Football is one thing; basketball should be easier.

The next rung after that group is Nebraska and Minnesota, neither of whom are winning the NCAA tournament this year or anytime soon. 

It's a brutal conference gauntlet without a single truly bad team, but none of them appear to have that make-the-Final-Four-and-then-win it championship gumption this year.

The Big Ten isn't sneaking up on anyone. There are no VCUs, Butlers or Wichita States here.

Make. A. Shot.
All that stood between the 2013 Buckeyes and a return to the Final Four was Wichita State.

February is closing fast, and the key to surviving into April is shooting, shooting, shooting, because even the stingiest defense needs scoreboard help. Michigan and Michigan State are equipped in this manner. Iowa, and to a lesser degree, Wisconsin can do this as well.

Last season at this point the Buckeyes actually had seven losses - but they came at #2 Duke, #11 Illinois, #18 Michigan State, #3 Michigan and #20 Wisconsin and at home against #9 Kansas and top-ranked Indiana. That team went 5-0 against the hydra of Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State, outscoring them by 92 points. This year's team is already 1-3 against those guys.

Even the Huskers and Nittany Lions have had streakier shooters this season than Ohio State, which strings together TV timeouts with its flurries of missed baskets. Its post presence needs Amir Williams and Trey McDonald to play like their recruiting profiles promised they would to offset a quasi-operational Lenzelle Smith Jr. who could then relieve pressure from a mostly-operational LaQuinton Ross.

Their collective shooting ceiling is Diebler with a hangover. These Buckeyes are only one-and-a-half guys away from having that April gravitas again. Doesn't seem like a lot, but then again we have 99% of the same DNA that chimpanzees have too. That extra 1% is huuuuge. Hopefully Deshaun is thoroughly enjoying Europe.

There is no matchup nightmare facing Ohio State's opponents.

The teammates he left behind are 205th nationally in scoring. Their points per game (71) and 3-point percentage (35%) are identical to when he played with them. The Buckeyes don't shoot very well, again - not from the post, not from the key, not from behind the arc and not even from the free throw line. They also can't rebound.

What they can do is strangle teams into submission with defense, which is fine until six straight opponents in ascending order of difficulty show up in an elimination series. 

Slugging and defending all the way to a title just doesn't happen anymore. Ohio State's best shooting streaks this season can be timed with stopwatches. To end this drought they'll need to outlast a sundial.

Neither the Buckeyes nor their conference mates appear to be equipped to do that into April. If the Big Ten is going to add Polar Vortex to Y2K bug in its library of title timestamps, its teams will require a tournament element they just haven't had enough of since Sparty wore the crown: Dumb luck.


Comments Show All Comments

Carson's picture

You summarized the shooting ability of this year's team in one sentence:

Their collective shooting ceiling is Diebler with a hangover.

My standards have been lowered for this team so as not to get frustrated by their performance. Let's look at this team as what it is and just enjoy the ride (however long or short) they give us.

+7 HS
acBuckeye's picture

Let's look at this team as what it is and just enjoy the ride (however long or short) they give us.

We said this a lot last season around this time as well. Oh yeah, that team had Tank though.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

The demarcation between "quasi-operational" and "mostly operational" is an interesting one.  Other than 3 pt %, I'm not sure where Q supercedes Smith.

Read my entire screen name....

+2 HS
thePhilipJFry's picture

In 30 min/game during B1G play Ross has an offensive rating of 111 and a usage of 29.0.  The only other players in the B1G even close to those numbers are Roy Devin Marble (112 and 28.7) and Yogi Ferrell (117 and 28.6).  Smith is at 102 and 20.6.  Offensively there is absolutely no comparison between what Ross has been able to do and what Smith has done.  Also Ross rebounds better, blocks more shots, and is only 2 steals behind Smith.

I would object to Smith being called "quasi-operational", a starting shooting guard with that low of a usage needs an offensive rating above 110 to be considered as helping his team.

I would also object to Ross being called "mostly operational" as he has been the only reason the Ohio State offense has been able to stay above a point per possession in B1G play.

+2 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

Smith averages a better shooting percentage on the season than does Q.  Smith is also a better free throw shooter and turns the ball over less.  As far as blocks and rebounds go, I think Smith actually does a better job than Ross considering his position, Smith being strictly perimeter and Ross being down low way more than Smith.  Just based on position, I'd expect Ross to have a higher offensive rating, he's supposed to play closer to the basket.

Defensively, it's not even close.  Ross can cost us just as many points as he scores, and easily makes up for his point differential on defense.  I'd imagine he gives up at least 4 or 5 a game.

Unfortunately and ultimately, I don't know that anyone on this team can be deemed mostly operational.


Read my entire screen name....

BucksfanXC's picture

PJF, you're the stat-man and I love it. If everyone forgets to mention you in those circlejerking "Who are the best 11W commenters" forum posts let me just say it's a mistake, myself included. Your blogposts from back in the day with the MGo-style QB ratings were frontpage worthy and I still think they should front page user content more often. Yours were the first I ever thought were worthy. Keep posting, you are appreciated

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

BuckeyeQ6's picture

I would say the main difference is Smith's drop off in B1G play.  His shooting percentage has tanked.  Also, Ross takes more shots, so has higher scoring.  Otherwise, Smith has more assists and fewer turnovers, but Ross has more rebounds and blocks.

  Ross Smith
Shooting 43.6% 44.2%
(B1G) 43.6% 36.9%
3pts 40.0% 37.0%
(B1G) 40.9% 30.2%
Pts. 14.4 11.7
(B1G) 15.8 10.0
R 146 126
A 22 39
TO 36 28
Blk 13 1
Stl 18 16


+2 HS
thePhilipJFry's picture

great post.

I'd add that Ross's turnover number is very good given his high usage.  Also in B1G play Ross has 14 assists to 19 for Smith.

+2 HS
kholmes's picture

When healthy, I think MSU has the potential to be that elite team. During their rough stretch recently, they have played much of that time missing two of Payne, Dawson, and Appling. When all of those are back, they are a much different team than wha they have been playing with recently.

+11 HS
Killer nuts's picture

As much as it pains me to say it I actually think both Michigan State and Michigan have lineups that will be very difficult outs in the NCAA tournament for other schools

+1 HS
thePhilipJFry's picture

Michigan had a really good stretch when Stauskas hit everything and was being guarded as just another guy on the court.  Since B1G opponents started playing quicker point guards on him defensively the Wolverines have looked decidedly more beatable.

I wonder about MSU's defensive rebounding ability.  Kentucky and UNC absolutely abused them on the boards (as did Ohio State and Michigan two terrible offensive rebounding teams).  For the whole of B1G they are second to Nebraska on the defensive boards but that is a few too many exceptions coinciding with big games for me to ignore.

+1 HS
tennbuckeye19's picture

MSU could be that team, sure. Which makes me even more bummed out that Shannon Scott missed that layup at their place in January.

MackHall400Series's picture

I wish all of my frustrations about this season were as witty as this article.  I usually just cuss a lot.

+6 HS
NitroBuck's picture

Damn straight!

Ferio.  Tego.

Baroclinicity's picture

It's tough to watch the one dimensional offense that is the Buckeyes hoops team.  I feel like we are one and done in the tourney, while hoping I'm wrong.  It's just got a bad vibe to it.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

+2 HS
MackHall400Series's picture

I'm not ready to give up on this team.  My friend and I gave up hope while watching the ND game with 0:50 left, down by 8.  That type of win on a neutral court gave me something to hold on to for the tournament.  We have the athletes to compete, we'll just have to wait and see.

+1 HS
Baroclinicity's picture

I hear you.  I never give up hope, but I guess my expectations are just lower.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

acBuckeye's picture

When we lose in the NCAA tournament, we lose in painfully slow, agonizing fashion.

+3 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

With previous teams, those types of games that we lost in the NCAA tourney were more season anomalies.  At least with this team, we're adequately prepared for and have seen that game already during the season.

Read my entire screen name....

+2 HS
Poison nuts's picture

The last line of this article speaks to a thought I've had for many years - the team that wins the tourney is not always the best team - it is the team that has the right combination of luck, a hot streak at the right time, & yes, you have to be a great team to get through the tourney unscathed...but not necessarily the best team in the country. For instance, no one will ever be able to convince me OSU wasn't the best team in the land in 2010 - but they had a bad game at the wrong time. Either way, hopefully in a year not too long from now - The Buckeyes can string it all together. I personally have waited a lifetime for it!

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+5 HS
Killer nuts's picture

Absolutely agree, the tournament champion is usually a team on a hot streak, that is peaking at the right time, and avoided bad matchups in their tourney draw. Not at all necessarily the best team

+1 HS
bukyze's picture

I think the best recent example of this would be UConn's 2011 team.  They finished the regular season tied for 9th in the Big East at 9-9, got on a hot streak, and never lost again, eventually beating Butler for the championship.

+1 HS
Killer nuts's picture

They were also absolute beasts in tournaments that year. If I recall they were undefeated for the year including a preseason tournament, the conference tournament, and the NCAA tournament. Kemba went off

avail31678's picture

Agreed.  Bucks were no doubt the best team in the country that year.  When we lost to Kentucky, I remember thinking..if we can't win it all with THIS team, when will we ever?!

+3 HS
Doc's picture

Poison, you nailed it.  The team that wins the tourney is on a hot streak and gets a few lucky breaks along the way.  When Oden, Conelly and Titus took us to the Championship game they got unlucky playing a juggernaut in Florida.  That team was the exact same team that won the year before.  2010 the team was on fire, until they weren't.  1992, I think, with JJ.  That team could have won the entire thing as well.  One of these years Matta will put the entire thing together, the stars will align and the tournament committee wont donkey punch us with an impossible bracket.  It's sooner than we think. 

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Poison nuts's picture

It's sooner than we think.

Please be right!

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

thatlillefty's picture

We've come so close, so many time the past decade. It's painful to think back on those losses to UK, KU and Wichita. But I suppose when we do eventually win it all (and I believe we will, under Matta), it will be all the more sweet.

+2 HS
buckeyeEddie27's picture

I hope you're right.  You know what would be sweet though?...If we went on a run in march and had all the teams that knocked us out in previous years in our bracket and beat them all.   Sienna, Wichita, Tennessee, Kansas, Kentucky and beat Florida in the title or something.   Will never happen, but it would still be sweet.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

+2 HS
UrbanCulture's picture

People seem to forget the sweet 16 loss to tennessee. Our bracket was upset plagued and we would have breezed into the final four. Evan turner could have been the kemba walker of that year

+1 HS
sb97's picture

Michigan and Michigan State both managed to win six straight in conference play this year. The Spartans have currently lost four of seven and the Wolverines have dropped three of five. The Badgers, who beat both of them last week, lost five of six in January including three at the infamous Trohl Center in Madison.

That is a bit misleading about Sparty...  During that stretch they have dealt with injuries to Dawson (Broken Hand), Appling (Wrist) and Payne (Foot).  Appling and Payne are both playing now.  If this team ever gets healthy they do have the horses to make a run at the title. Of course getting healthy is a big if at this point.

Edit:  Whoops I see someone else already brought this up.

psibuck's picture

This team absolutely needs Q or Loving (or anybody) to catch fire for a few weeks in March.  The lack of a low post threat is killer but can be masked in the tourney with good guard play and pushing the tempo.  At least that's how I see it from my couch.  Pass the nachos.

+1 HS
sb97's picture

For my money, I would just like to see the team clean up its act on the defensive boards.  Amir gets a lot of grief but boxing out is a team effort there are others that need to step up here.  Honestly, I have a hard time calling this an elite defense when we give up so many second chances.

+2 HS
1MechEng's picture

I miss Chris Jent. The Buckeyes shooting woes seemed to really become prominent right after he left for the NBA.

+1 HS
buckeyeEddie27's picture

I said the same thing to a buddy of mine while watching the Purdue game.  Seems his departure may have left more of a void than anticipated.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

scrotieMcboogerballs's picture

I am starting to think Ohio State teams, like all Ohio professional teams (browns, bengals, indians, reds, er-blue jackets), are incapable of winning the big game.  Our basketball and football teams have combined for 1 national championship in the last 30-some years.  Yeah, we've won a few big bowl games. But being an elite school is about championships, and until Ohio State starts winning championships, they will continue to be under-achieving programs capable of having some 'nice' seasons but unable to break the barrier.

"Who do you think you are?!?!...I am!!"  -Pete Weber, bowling legend and dominator of the English language

ColoradoBuck's picture

Remember the Louisville athletic department's dream year last year? Men's basketball champs, women's basketball runners-up, and that shocking win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

I have convinced myself that this is the Sparty athletic department's dream year, and my bracket will reflect it.