Wednesday December 3rd, 2014

About seven minutes into the premier matchup of Big Ten/ACC Challenge Night Two, there was nothing but air and expectation between Kam Williams and the rim. The Ohio State freshman beat the pack down the floor for a fairly rote dunk attempt. There were Louisville defenders trailing, but they didn’t have a realistic shot. Williams blew the dunk, and as seemingly often happens when freshmen blow dunks on the road against top-5 teams, it got worse. The Cardinals broke back the other way for a three-pointer. All the Buckeyes had for a long time on Tuesday were problems that swelled into bigger problems.

In the final minute of arguably the second-most intriguing matchup of the evening, a callow Syracuse team had two chances to work toward a go-ahead score against Michigan. On the first, a freshman, Chris McCullough, committed a turnover before the Orange reached half-court. On the second, a freshman, Kaleb Joseph, committed a turnover after the Orange passed half-court. When it came time for a potential game-tying three-pointer as the clock neared zero, Joseph got the call. His shot didn’t catch even a fraction of the rim.

In neither case was the outcome altogether disheartening. Ohio State was an absolute wreck in the first half and bloodied its knuckles to get within three late before succumbing in a 64-55 loss. Syracuse actually led at halftime before falling 68-65. And in neither case was the outcome all that unusual: Of the six Big Ten/ACC Challenge games played on Tuesday, just one road team – Minnesota, playing at Wake Forest – picked up a victory. But since the idea is to assess what this all meant for the Buckeyes and the Orange specifically, it appeared that two teams who don’t know how to win on the road acted exactly like that, and that’s of more concern in Columbus than it is in upstate New York.

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Combine Louisville’s frenetic pressure and maddening zone with the astringent din of the KFC Yum! Center, and a team can feel about 20,000 leagues under the sea very quickly. And Ohio State was down where natural light couldn’t reach them after a putrid first half, in which it made six field goals and scored 17 points. (By comparison, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear alone had five field goals and 16 points before the break.) So credit the Buckeyes for eroding what was a 19-point deficit at its worst when there were plenty of reasonable excuses to go to pieces. The only issues: Why did it come to that in the first place, and did the Buckeyes miss one of their very limited chances to help themselves before Big Ten play begins as a result?

The mercurial game of D’Angelo Russell, the Ohio State freshman star and Louisville native, was understandable. He was 6-of-20 with seven assists, six rebounds and four turnovers before a hometown crowd. At times, the 6-foot-8 swingman made velvety attacks at the rim or needle-eyed a pass to a cutting teammate. At times, Russell seemed lost, like when he hoisted a transition three-pointer midway through the second half when the Buckeyes could have worked for a better shot to cut the lead to single digits.

But he’s a freshman. This is to be expected.

The combined 2-of-12 shooting from Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, or the middling three points and five rebounds from Amir Williams, was disconcerting. Louisville is very good, and Russell certainly appears to be Ohio State’s best player by far, but the veterans who have encountered through these road-game thickets before needed to be better. They should be better, anyway, or at least reliable, while everyone else finds their way. Instead, Ohio State is left to hope for appreciable in-season improvement from seniors, which is not very reassuring, because much of that improvement should have happened already.

So now the Buckeyes have a Dec. 20 game against North Carolina in Chicago for their one remaining chance to make any sort of non-conference statement. Lose that, and the best pre-Big Ten win is against…rebuilding Marquette? Clinging to the second-half resolve they demonstrated Tuesday is fine, but had it been there from the start, far fewer questions would follow Ohio State out of the building. Youth like Russell and Kam Williams will get better, and by the look of the second half, the Buckeyes aren’t bad. But the first half makes you ponder just how good they can be.

Syracuse, meanwhile, did what young teams do: A lot of good stuff (50 percent shooting, a plus-3 rebound margin) and then the precise kind of stuff that blows up a chance for a road upset (19 turnovers, 17 offensive rebounds surrendered). The degree of difficulty against Michigan was lower than it was for Ohio State at Louisville, but if there’s optimism about the Orange, it’s because the expectations were lower as well. And because there’s now a faint hint of an upward trajectory. The ghoulish 35 percent shooting effort in a 73-59 loss to Cal two weeks earlier hasn’t faded from memory, but a win over Iowa the following night and a near-miss against Michigan suggest some progress, with plenty of room for further growth. St. John’s and Villanova await before December is out. Syracuse must apply what it has learned, to sustain enough offensive efficiency to keep up in the ACC.

Everyone essentially knew where the Orange stood before Tuesday: This was going to be no easy haul for a team relying on very youthful parts.

There was precious little context for Ohio State, however, after UMass-Lowell and Sacred Heart and Campbell and James Madison. There was youth, yes, but there were some battle-tested cogs as well who shouldn’t have been shocked by what confronted them at the Yum! Center. The Louisville game represented the first opportunity to assess the Buckeyes properly, to calculate exactly what they’re made of. We remain only half-sure.

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