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.