Ohio State dunks Iona; Buckeyes butt their way into title discussion
DAYTON, Ohio -- The question was intended for Ohio State wing Sam Thompson, who threw down a number of high-flying dunks in the Buckeyes' easy 95-70 win over Iona, including a one-handed alley-oop that may be the best non-Florida Gulf Coast dunk of the young tournament. But before he or point guard Aaron Craft could begin to describe Thompson's ethereal aerial ability, a voice just to their left intercepted the question and ran with it, as readily as the Buckeyes had done to numerous Gaels passes.
"You gotta get your feet set," head coach Thad Matta interjected. "I always tell guys to throw the ball in the air a lot like Sam there."
Forget the nine-game winning streak and the Big Ten tournament championship and the way the Buckeyes punished the Gaels at their own uptempo game. If Matta is joking about how to throw lobs for dunks, you can tell he's pretty pleased with how his team is playing. And he should be.
With national attention primarily focused on Indiana, then Michigan, then Michigan State, then Indiana again as the Big Ten conch continually changed hands, the Buckeyes were somewhat of an afterthought. Stripped of Jared Sullinger and some secondary scoring options from last year's Final Four team, the Buckeyes were viewed as a one-note offensive team that may be too challenged to be a legitimate threat. A dreadful performance at Wisconsin, in which the Buckeyes scored just 0.81 points per possession in a 71-49 loss, dropped them to 8-5 in the league. On the heels of limited earlier efforts against Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State, Ohio State appeared to have a glass ceiling.
But since that loss to the Badgers, the Buckeyes are perfect, and more importantly, they have been more potent. They play at a slower tempo, so scores in the 60s didn't really receive much attention, but with Craft and others helping leading scorer Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes started hanging some impressive offensive performances on good teams. They beat the Spartans by eight, went to Bloomington and handled the Hoosiers by nine, and then beat the Spartans again plus the Badgers on their way to the Big Ten tourney crown.
The 95-point explosion against a willing-but-not-entirely-able Iona team is the latest evidence that these Buckeyes can score, and they may be in a better place as a team than this time a year ago, when roles weren't as settled and chemistry didn't seem as good. The elite defense is certainly still there.
"My sense is we're playing great basketball," Deshaun Thomas said, who said the team has really come together since that Wisconsin loss, bonding over many sessions of Mario Kart. "We know that's because of our defense. Our defense leads to transition and dunks, and that's what we're doing."
As you'd expect after a romp, there was a levity and lightheartedness in the Buckeyes' locker room, but this feeling wasn't nearly as present last year in Pittsburgh. Fueled by vibe and victory, these Buckeyes are pushing their way louder and louder into the discussion for Atlanta, especially with the way the West bracket has blown up, with the 3-, 4- and 5-seeds all out in the round of 64.
Projection beyond Sunday, though, took a backseat in the locker room to the pressing question of the night: What kind of dunk cred does Matta really have? "I been watching a couple of Big Ten Journeys," Thomas said with a laugh. "Coach Matta used to get up a little bit."