Defense Key in Determining Ohio State's Postseason Fate

By Kyle Rowland on March 10, 2014 at 3:00p

Defense didn’t win Ohio State the Big Ten championship, but it was a major contributor in the Buckeyes’ white-knuckle win over Michigan State Sunday. And going forward, if Ohio State is to have a successful run in the conference tournament and beyond, it will do so with defense.

The regular season is now complete. Thirty-one games have been played. There is no mystery to this Buckeye team. LaQuinton Ross is the only reliable scorer, defense is the team’s calling card and maddening inconsistency leads to frustration for observers.

Senior Day – was it also Ross’s final home game? – served as a season-long tableau of highs and lows. There was Ross scoring 22 points, but missing crucial free throws. Ohio State controlling the game only to have the Spartans regain momentum with a barrage of three-pointers. But the most appropriate image was that of Aaron Craft diving on a loose-ball rebound – the Buckeye defense making its last stand.

Ohio State finished the season with 23 wins, and a bulk came by way of defending.

“I thought that we defended down the stretch as well as we could defend,” head coach Thad Matta said. "We had to, and that was the thing we kept saying. The last eight minutes it was on.”

The Buckeyes ended the game on a 9-2 run after trailing by five points. Michigan State was 1-of-5 shooting with five turnovers. The Spartans didn’t score the final 4:29. The difference, according to Matta, was setting up a stifling half-court defense.

Transition points came often for well-conditioned Michigan State. It’s long been accustomed to running a fast-paced offense. Fast breaks off made baskets aren’t out of the ordinary. What Matta saw with Ohio State running its press didn’t instill confidence.

“Everybody calls into my radio show and says, ‘You need to be pressing all the time,’” he said. “There’s a reason we don’t press all the time – because we give up layups.”

Matta called a timeout with 6:40 remaining and instructed his team to get the Spartans into their half-court offense. His belief was that the Buckeyes could win if the up-and-down nature of the game changed.

It did, and Michigan State was stymied.

“We learned a lot about ourselves in this past week,” Matta said. “We challenged them, and I told them we are a better basketball team than we were a week ago. I’m proud of them, and it showed [Sunday].”

Across the way, Tom Izzo was left frustrated. His team, once a favorite to win the national championship, is reeling as it enters postseason play. The Spartans are 5-7 in their past 12 games. Despite being healthy for the first time in months, Michigan State has been unable to recapture its earlier form.

“Ohio State played very hard, very aggressive and very physical,” Izzo said. “If any of you guys from Ohio think this is the old smash-mouth Michigan State team, you’re kidding yourself. We’re not that team.”

Likewise, if you think Ohio State is that team loaded with jump shooters, a skilled big man who can irritate defenses and the ability to score at critical junctures, you’re wrong. Those are the Buckeyes of year’s past, not this season.

Performances like Sunday give Ohio State false hope. It’s unlikely that a team could reinvent itself at this stage of the season. But it’s not unheard of. Momentum and confidence have spearheaded Madness before. Why can’t it happen again?

“I think we did what we should have been doing all year. Down the stretch, we all got together and fought,” Ross said. “If you watch some of our old games, it looked like we didn’t know what we were doing. [Sunday] we showed what type of team we are and what type of team they need to look forward to in this tournament.”

Ross, who eclipsed 20 points for the seventh time Sunday and averaged 14.8 points for the season, is at the heart of the Buckeyes’ postseason fate. He must continue piling up points, but also buckle down on defense. It’s a similar path Deshaun Thomas’ career took – dependable scorer turns into trusted defender.

From his freshman to junior years, Thomas’s defensive aptitude rose considerably. Even Matta’s made the comparison between the two shot takers. When you come play for Ohio State, a one-dimensional skill set doesn’t equate to playing time. Matta said he’s seen the change in Ross’s demeanor.

“Hopefully, knock on wood, he’ll continue that because it’s definitely helping us,” Matta said.

Throughout his time at Ohio State, Ross has been the target of intense criticism for his lackadaisical defense. Part of that equation has been matching up against the opponent’s biggest offensive threat. But effort is the top ingredient. Far too often, Ross looks disinterested on the defensive end, biding his time for a change of possession.

It was no coincidence that Ohio State’s February recovery coincided with the best defense of Ross’s career.

“I think Q’s found that, ‘Hey, if I want to make an impact in the game, I’ve got to take this more serious and make it count,’” Matta opined. “I think he’s more prideful in what he’s doing defensively.”

“I’m more attentive to the game right now,” Ross said.

With focus and alertness on defense, Ohio State just might conjure up an NCAA Tournament ride in a season full of the unexpected.


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Deadly Nuts's picture

Q's face in that picture is quite disturbing...


+3 HS
Buckeyevstheworld's picture

The picture makes it seem like he smacked the ND player to get the ball. lol

"YOLO" = I'm about to do something extremely ignorant/stupid & I need an excuse to do it.

BuckeyeSouth's picture

If Ross has paid any attention to the path that Deshaun Thomas' career has taken he won't be leaving early for the NBA.  I'd bet that if Thomas were honest he'd say that it was a big mistake for him to leave after his junior year.

Champions.  Undisputed.  

+1 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

I don't mean to sound like a broken record (because I've posted this similar comment on other threads), but Thomas has no regrets about his decision. He's playing in Europe, he's making good money and supporting his family, and he joined an organization (the Spurs) that is great at maximizing a player's talent and using those talents to their fullest. Just because he's not playing in the NBA this year does not mean he won't in the future.

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

+1 HS
OldColumbusTown's picture

I don't understand the statement of "Performances like Sunday give Ohio State false hope."  OSU didn't do anything any differently Sunday than they have all season.  They played with a little more grit, but it is not the first time we've seen that this season.  In fact, we've seen it quite often.  Only during two different stretches of the season did we not see it from this team (during the 5 of 6 game losing skid, and the recent two game losing streak).

I'd argue this is the exact formula OSU needs to lean on in order to be successful.  They need to take smart shots, don't rely on shooting a bunch of threes, don't turn the ball over, and rebound.  Let's be honest - MSU had no business being in the game when you really dive into the details.  They made 10 3-pointers, turned the ball over 16 times, and OSU missed 12 free throws.  OSU should have won going away.

It's the little things OSU has to continue to work on cleaning up.  What is amazing is how inept this team can be offensively for two or three prolonged stretches each game.  And yet, they still do not ever get blown out when they do lose.  They do, in fact, win the majority of their games despite the scathing reviews they get each time out, it seems.

If they can just figure out how to cut those 4 1/2 minute droughts without a FG to 2 1/2 minutes, they're going to do some damage in the tournament.  Is that really so hard to do?  They've made it seem so at times, but now is the time to get it figured out.

+2 HS
Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

I thought the same thing. Kyle whiffed on that point IMO. 

As you said, OSU never gets blown out. That plus OSU's ability to win ugly is why higher seeds do not want to see the Buckeyes.

But OSU's scoring droughts keep lesser teams in games. That makes them vulnerable to a first round loss. 

You gave the winning formula. Will they execute it consistently or will they get away from what they do?

Seattle Linga's picture

So happy we beat sparty and so glad Izzo went down again - I hope Q stays for his senior year because I personally don't think his game is ready for the NBA. He needs to be a supporting role not a true dominate "take over the game" player - just my 2 cents.

Go1Bucks's picture

What he ^^^ said.

Plus, there is no question of OSUs ability to create havoc with D.  The only issue is which offensive version of the team will show up.  We cannot afford to miss easy shots, blow layups or dunks, or launch bricks from the charity stripe.  I know the team is capable, they know they are capable and now they only need to produce.  Q could be the key.

I still have some optimism left, I hope thats enough.

Go Bucks!

Seattle Linga's picture

Optimism is enough and hopefully they will bring it on THURS FRI SAT and SUN - We just need to play well in all facets of the game.

+1 HS
buckeyehub's picture

Glad the defense is better this year, remembering last year and how every team hit 10 3's against us a game (maybe a little exaggerated) but while our defense has been surging, our offense took a flip. Lose two players and suddenly that happens.. Hope Ross stays as a 20+ scorer through both tourneys. 

“Anyone can run the option. I can run the option.” - Urban Meyer
Let's beat the snot out of *ichigan.