By Matt McCoy
Since arriving at Ohio State nearly a decade ago, a hallmark of Thad Matta coached teams has been toughness...both mentally and physically. It has helped produce five Big Ten titles, two trips to the Final Four, and five Sweet 16's, including four in a row.
But coming off road losses to Penn State and Indiana--teams that are below 500 in conference play---610 WTVN basketball analyst Tony White says the absence of that critical intangible has Matta's 2014 team limping towards the finish line.
"What would bother me the most if I were Thad Matta is it's March and I don't know how tough my team is," White said on WTVN's Bucksline Monday night. "I don't know how good they are and I don't know how tough they are. I look at this team and say 'what happened?'."
What happened last week was two winnable games were lost and Ohio State dropped out of the top 25 in both polls for the first time this season. In both games, the Buckeyes took comfortable leads early but saw them evaporate because of prolonged scoring droughts.
Most bothersome to Tony was the sequence of events over the final 7:30 of the first half at Indiana Sunday that turned a 20-12 Buckeye lead into a 33-25 halftime deficit. The headliner was the technical foul picked up by junior LaQuinton Ross.
Just three games after being ejected in a Buckeye win over Northwestern, Ross was battling for the ball with Indiana's Austin Etherington and after the whistle, shoved Etherington, drawing a T.
Ross had been fouled on the play and had two free-throws but the technical also gave Indiana two freebies and saddled Ross with a second personal foul that sent him to the bench for the rest of the half. Eventually, in the second half, Ross fouled out.
"That made my head almost explode off of my shoulders," Tony said of Ross' technical. "You're talking about a kid who's a leader on this team and a junior, on the road in a crucial game. You'd think after the (Northwestern thing) that he would have learned his lesson...but he does it again. And then he goes up there to shoot his free throws and he didn't just miss the free throws, he hit the front rim on both of them. Neither one of those free throws ever had a chance....those are the types of plays that I'm talking about...This team, as a whole is not very tough."
But Tony's toughness critique is not limited to just Ross. He sees it as a team-wide issue.
"There's pockets of toughness on this team. Aaron Craft--anything he does is going to be tough...Lenzelle Smith Jr. is a tough kid rebounding the ball but it's just in that one aspect of the game. If you give him the basketball and ask him to shoot, mentally he's not tough anymore," Tony said. "Shannon Scott, you get him to defend...he's tough in that pocket of the game...but basketball is not played in the context of one individual setting. Your toughness is not defined as a player or a team by whether you're tough in one thing but weak in another thing. It's defined by how you are as a whole player--the whole body of work and when you set Aaron Craft aside, this team, just about all the way down the roster, they lean more weak than tough."
Time is obviously running out. The final regular season game is Sunday against Michigan State and from there it's post-season play starting with the Big Ten Tournament where the Buckeyes have dominated.
Ohio State has won four tournament titles under Matta, have made the title game five years in a row and seven times in eight years. Can this team find that toughness to make a run in Indianapolis or in the NCAA tournament? Tony said it's possible...but he's not optimistic.
"This team just does not feel tough enough to win tough games in March. I know they have quality wins on the road which is a great sign...but this team seems to have not grown from there in terms of toughness, confidence and ability and I wonder if we're ever going to see it."
LeBron's Career Night
Love him or hate him, LeBron James basketball skills are ridiculous. The best player in the game had the best scoring game of his NBA life Monday night, putting up 61 points (a Miami franchise record) in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
James night included eight consecutive made 3-pointers before he finally missed in the fourth quarter. It was an incredible performance. Check out the highlights which include all 22 of James made field goals. I've also posted James post-game comments after his record setting night.