Late Comebacks: Living and Dying by the Sword

By Nicholas Jervey on February 23, 2014 at 7:17a
Let's try stringing 40 good minutes together.

The Buckeyes have a penchant for playing interesting, unpredictable games. Playing well is another matter.

You would be forgiven if Ohio State's 64-46 win over Minnesota last night gave you a stress migraine. After all, the men's basketball team has a penchant for toying with fans' blood pressure.

People who skipped the game may see an eighteen-point win and think nothing of it. Those who sat through it will retain memories of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine the team put on in each half.

In the first half, Ohio State shot an abysmal 27% from the floor. Aaron Craft was downright careless with the ball and  played what might be the worst half of his four years in Columbus. The Buckeyes gave a staggering Minnesota team a ten point lead in the midst of its worst first half this season.

Sam Thompson concurred, calling it, “...definitely the worst we’ve played. Coach Matta said it at halftime. Up to this point in the season, we hadn’t come out and just laid an egg, and we did that in the first half.”

In contrast, the second half was Ohio State at its best. After an opening bucket by the Gophers, the Buckeyes went on a scintillating run to reverse the game's fortune. Every defender harassed his man into a tough or blockable shot. Everyone pounded the glass like madmen, leading the Buckeyes to out-rebound a much taller Minnesota team by 15.

Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson turned into Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on the fast break, Amir Williams of all people acquired Gary Payton's hands, and Aaron Craft became John Stockton. Scratch that, comparing Craft to another scrappy white point guard is a bad idea; Aaron Craft became Chris Paul.

It was a beautiful, devastating display. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino had to call three successive timeouts to stanch the bleeding. Pitino admitted that the nine second half turnovers were crippling and OSU “...made us pay probably on every single one of them." By the time the 27-5 run was over, so was the game.

Iowa was fun.
Happy times...

This ought to count as an impressive win. The problem is that we've seen this game before, and it bodes poorly for the postseason.

A few days ago, Ohio State trailed a overmatched Northwestern squad before blowing the doors off in the second half. A few nights before that, the Buckeyes wheezed their way to 48 points– good enough to win only because the cellar-dwelling Illini could only cough up 39 points of their own.

Michigan State made the Buckeyes look foolish until a furious comeback brought the Buckeyes back from 17 down (alas, overtime went awry). Even in the halcyon days of 2013, the listless Buckeyes had to make up eight points in the final 50 seconds to steal a game against Notre Dame.

You may sense a trend in these nerve-wracking games, and that's falling into a big deficit only to steal the game with a late rally. These kinds of wins help get Ohio State into the field, but they set a horrible trend about variability.

This is the most variable team of Matta's tenure by far. Which of Matta's other teams has a disparity as wide as beating Iowa and Wisconsin on the road and losing to Penn State at home? What other team could shoot 27% and 70% in two halves of the same game?

Every time the team does something like shoot 51% against Iowa, it turns around and shoots 38% against Illinois. Sam Thompson can score 4 points one game and a season-high 19 the next. Somehow, the Buckeyes destroyed Nebraska by 31 and lost a rematch by 6 in a span of two weeks. It's baffling. 

Michigan was less fun.
...and less happy times.

You could say Ohio State's unpredictability makes it dangerous, but that's polishing a turd. If everyone has an off night, the team will crash – which brings me to the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio State's variability makes it ripe for a round of 64 upset. If the Buckeyes continue as expected, they'll end up in a 5-12 game. If that happens, expect to hear hollering about how Ohio State is the most vulnerable 5 seed in the history of the universe. Prepare for clamoring until your ears hurt; worse, prepare for those loudmouths to be right.

If OSU stays this variable for the rest of the year, there's another ignominious record this team could challenge for. They could well be on either end of the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.

The current record for largest comeback is 25 points, from the 2012 BYU-Iona play-in game. If Ohio State plays the right fast-paced opponent (like BYU, the sixth-fastest team in the country), it will have enough variance to overcome or blow that margin.

All it needs to do is repeat the Minnesota comeback by getting hot and playing shutdown defense. Ohio State could just as easily hit a trademark cold spell and fall apart en route to blowing a huge lead. The aggravating thing about the Buckeyes is that you never know which team is going to show up for the next five minutes, let alone an entire game.

For all we know, the Buckeyes will bow out of the NCAA tournament with a quiet five point loss. The point is that a team this streaky, one that can win at Iowa or lose to Penn State or split halves like they did against Minnesota, needs to get hot and stay hot for six games to win a title.

That's not going to happen if this team doesn't establish a baseline. Until this team develops some consistency, the best they can hope for is an unspectacular finish.



Hovenaut's picture

Good, honest look at what may come for this team. I appreciate the fight when the backs have been against the wall, but I sure wish this team could find a way to come out swinging from start to finish.

Which still seems weird to lament with another 20+ win season on the books.

We have filled the Braxton Miller position.

+7 HS
gwalther's picture

Yep, very good evaluation.

Massive tip of the cap to Matta and squad for snatching the season back from the brink with that W at Wisconsin. We were headed a much worse direction than another 20+ win season and 5-seed in the tourney. I am so happy we have Thad Matta. #relevant #notsucking

Class of 2008

+4 HS
Carson's picture

The variability of this team has made an honest fan of me. I just hope I'm not becoming apathetic towards them. They don't deserve that.

+1 HS
Bailey458's picture

Completely agree.  However over the course of the bad losses to PSU, Nebraska and Minny specifically I could see the end coming and because I always tape delay a game slightly when watching it at home I'd get frustrated and scan forward 30 seconds a lot.  Love the Bucks, but they can be painful to watch this year, more so than any Matta team.  They can probably beat anyone but can also get blown out of the gym and I worry those scars will be too much in the tourney when they face adversity.  This makes me somewhat apathetic too and ashamed for feeling that way.

+2 HS
bukyze's picture

If that happens, expect to hear hollering about how Ohio State is the most vulnerable 5 seed in the history of the universe.

I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that. 

timhbomb's picture

Aaron Craft became John Stockton. Scratch that, comparing Craft to another scrappy white point guard is a bad idea; Aaron Craft became Chris Paul.

Too funny

+2 HS
Killer nuts's picture

The NCAA tournament is fun for the same reason this Ohio State team is frustrating: the unpredictability. You never know what will happen until we get there

+2 HS
TMac's picture

I'm with Killer, March Madness is so great because of the unpredictability of it all. This team is just as capable of getting to the sweet 16 as they are losing their opening game, Remember Siena anyone?

ONE Not Done!

+1 HS
ScarletGray43157's picture

As a team they have an odd and baffling chemistry.  Matta is a known quantity as a coach, but this group of players are an enigma when it comes to focus and intensity.  The ability and talent are clearly there, though.  

In old Ohio there's a team that's known throughout the land...

+1 HS
Carson's picture

A full helmet of Buckeye leaves to you, sir, for nailing that on the head!

EvanstonBuckeye's picture

This team is what it is. We have guys who can get to the hoop, but can't finish (Craft) and guys who can finish, but can't get to the hoop (Thompson). We'll go as far as our defensive intensity takes us, barring a horrific shooting effort. I don't think we need to shoot lights out to keep advancing, but we won't survive a 27% half in the tourney. It would be wise if we started calling plays for Q every third time down the floor, as well. He has basketball ADD.

Also, Minny plays like they're on crack, year in and year out.

+1 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

I have to disagree with that first sentiment, Craft can get to the hoop and DOES finish well, more times than not. He doesn't always finish, but I think he's at his best when he's being aggressive and driving to the hole. The majority of the time, he scores or gets fouled. And I'd say Thompson has a 90 minute highlight reel from this year alone that shows how well he can get to the hoop AND finish. But I get what yer saying, we don't see much of Thompson driving to the lane and scoring. He's almost always catch and finish or catch and pop the jumper.

But I agree, I think Ross and the team need to figure out how to get him posted or at the free throw line with the ball on a more regular basis. But I think that's 50% on Ross to always be in the flow and focused.

And yeah, if people think WE're chaotic, Minnesota takes the cake. Imagine what the Gopher fans must feel like.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+1 HS
4cardpoker's picture

I feel like if Thompson can continue to be aggressive offensively and use his athleticism then this team can go much farther than the sweet 16.  Of all the players Sam definitely has the highest ceiling.  The rest of the players are who they are at this point.  But Sam is the wildcard because do his athleticism.  He has the ability to do things no one else in the B1G can do and he is an absolute monster in transition.  The team has to run though.  Until we can get some sharpshooters on the perimeter this team will always struggle in half court sets.

It's imperative this team plays to its strengths.  Scott, Thompson, Smith and Ross are best in transition and are very unselfish.  These guys also struggle in half court sets.  Make the other team adjust to your style.  It shouldn't take until halftime to figure these things out.  

Excited to se how the stretch run plays out.  Once again Thad has the team playing its best ball in late Feb/March

+1 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

In order to win games in the tournament, you have to have a team that's ALWAYS competitive. And that's the glory and blessing of MATTA, his team's always play their best ball as the season winds down and the wins become more important. Certainly, we don't ALWAYS win in March, but we're always competitive and almost always in a position to win late.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+1 HS
chili96's picture

I think that this was Sam's best game of the season (from what I can remember). If he could improve his handles and get comfortable dribbling, maybe develop a crossover, he would be nearly unstoppable. He's steadily improving and juices up the crowd when he throws it down.

+2 HS
Zimmy07's picture

19 points is 1 less than his career high against Iona.

Johnny-Shane_Utah-Falco's picture

The team is playing with fire by going down 10 to average teams. They can't continue this bad habit. Even against a subpar but dangerous Penn State team --- they can not afford to go down early, especially on the road. They need to get a good start, then continue their second half surge we've recently seen.

I feel a great NCAA Tournament could be in the cards for Thad & the boys...Go Bucks!

+1 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Matta mentioned in his post game interview that things weren't right in pre-game and was worried that they would come out cold. Great comeback and well played 2nd half.

cjzarecki's picture

I've never seen a conference this volatile and this competitive. Early in the season, losing to Nebraska, I had too many doubts to even consider Ohio State making a tourney run. However, Nebraska then turned around and beat MSU at HOME.  Since, the Buckeyes have put together some good winning streaks in THE toughest conference in CBB, I think they make it as far as their scoring can carry them. I think that any B1G team that gets a tournament bid will do relatively well in the tournament. But as I mentioned above, as it always seems to be the last couple of years, especially this year, will OSU have one of those nights where they can't score the basketball? That will be the biggest problem, and may likely end their run early..

mrspray's picture

This whole season has been just like the Wichita St game - they were so close in that game after shooting so poorly in the 1st half, but just weren't able to make up the difference in the end. Glad to see there's some fight in this team though - whether they win or lose, they tend to at least make these games exciting.

WC Buckeye's picture

God help any team we play in the B1G or NCAA (or NIT..) tournament if:

1) The team plays a solid 40 minutes of basketball

2) Sam Thompson stays hot and continues to move well away from the ball

3) Aaron Craft limits his turnovers, drives to the hoops, and FINDS HIS JUMPER

Ohio State won't lose to anyone if all 3 of these happen with any regularity. Tall order, but they've shown they have what it takes on all 3.

The only thing that's new in the world is the history that we have forgotten.

+1 HS
JakeStevensIsSwag's picture

If this team can finish out the rest of the regular season and Big Ten tournament with one loss, they could possibly make a case for a 3 or 4 seed and do some damage come April

Buckeye fan from PA

+1 HS