February 9, 2011
In an era focused on individual stars, one NCAA team reminds us that basketball is still a team sport: the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are 24-0 and ranked No. 1 despite losing last season’s college player of the year, Evan Turner. In a well-respected Big Ten Conference and at a school best-known for football, Ohio State has quietly become a national power on the hardwood, winning 38 of their past 40 games. I have to think even Aretha Franklin would agree: It’s time for the Ohio State basketball program to start getting the respect it deserves.
Team basketball was meant to be played the Ohio State way. Four OSU players average double figures per game: Jared Sullinger (18.0), William Buford (13.6), David Lighty (12.5) and Jon Diebler (11.2). The Buckeyes can beat teams inside or outside, driving past defenders or shooting over them. If the defense collapses on freshman sensation Sullinger, Ohio State has four guys shooting more than 40 percent from 3-point range. If their opponents guard against the 3-pointer, Sullinger can destroy them in the lane.
And if Ohio State is off their offensive game, they can survive with athletic man-to-man defense led by sixth-year senior, Lighty—the best and most versatile defender in college basketball. At 6-foot-5, Lighty is quick enough to cover smaller guards and athletic enough to guard larger forwards, earning him value well beyond the box score. All in all, the Buckeyes are talented and selfless, a rare combination in today’s sports world.
Ohio State is the total package. I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Craft, the freshman point guard who comes off the bench and averages nearly 7 points, 5 assists and 2 steals while playing terrific defense. And true freshman Deshaun Thomas, the seventh guy in the rotation, is the third-leading scorer in Indiana high school history and averages nearly 9 points and 4 rebounds per game. Throw in defensive and shot-blocking specialist Dallas Lauderdale at the center position and Ohio State is one very complete team.
In the modern game, high school superstars often play only one season at the college level. Nobody knows this better than Ohio State coach Thad Matta who, in the past five seasons, has lost six freshmen and one senior to the NBA Draft. Since the most talented players leave early, any team wanting to make a national championship run needs to strike the right balance between talent and team leadership.
There are teams that take the opposite approach and avoid players likely to leave after only one year of school. Such programs attempt to beat teams consisting of raw superstars (e.g., Memphis) with solid veterans (e.g., Pitt). In this year’s Buckeyes, Matta has the best of both worlds. His seven-man rotation features three seniors, one junior and three freshmen. So the question remains, how do experienced teams with good players or inexperienced teams with great talent beat an Ohio State team with both? No one seems to know the answer.
I am not guaranteeing that Ohio State will cruise through March Madness en route to their first national championship since 1960, when some guys named John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Bobby Knight roamed the floor. Winning a national title takes talent and experience, but also good health and luck.
Truthfully, with seven regular season games remaining and the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments yet to begin, I feel comfortable saying Ohio State will not end the season undefeated. The last team to do so was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Theirs was an era of less parity, no conference tournaments and a 32-team NCAA tournament. Like a lot of things in life, “it was easier back then.”
The 1976 Hoosiers finished 32-0. In order to have a perfect season, Ohio State would have to go 30-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the Big Ten tournament and 6-0 in the NCAA tournament, for a total record of 39-0. Such a feat would be the greatest team basketball achievement since John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins won 10 titles in 12 seasons between 1964 and 1975.
With the 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers eagerly awaiting the Buckeyes’ arrival in Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday—a venue where Matta is 0-7 as Ohio State’s head coach—the Buckeyes face their toughest challenge of the season. A road test against Purdue and home games against Michigan State and Illinois still loom.
In the end, the odds of a perfect season are long and the road to perfection nearly impossible. However, the Ohio State basketball program is announcing its presence with authority on the national scene and deserves some well-earned R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
The respect of analysts and fans isn’t important to this team. The pursuit of an elusive perfect season is a dream for the players, but the ultimate goal is a national championship—perfection in itself.
To make it all the way, Norman Dale, coach of the Hickory Huskers in the iconic basketball movie, “Hoosiers,” has some advice that rings true for any basketball team competing at any level in any era:
“Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team. No one more important than the other.”
It may be the wrong state, but these Buckeyes are the right team. And they’re playing a brand of basketball not seen in years. March Madness can’t get here soon enough.