Ohio State celebrated an improbable comeback victory over Notre Dame. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
Four-point play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF from the past seven days of college hoops. Expect this column every Sunday.
Game of the week: (3) Ohio State 64, Notre Dame 61
With 58 seconds remaining in Saturday night’s game between Notre Dame and No. 2 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, all the Irish needed was a couple of turnover-free possessions and a some made free throws to seal a season-changing victory. Notre Dame had rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit, using its deep backcourt, timely shotmaking (Notre Dame shot 63.2 percent in the second half) and varying defensive looks to take a commanding, eight-point lead against the Buckeyes. Late in the game, one broadcaster on the ESPN telecast remarked that Notre Dame -- thanks to its veteran backcourt -- was likely to make “good decisions” with the ball.
Exactly the opposite happened. After trusted ball-handler Eric Atkins fouled out with under two minutes to play, Notre Dame needed guard Jerian Grant to take control down the stretch. Grant, who has committed turnovers on just 12.7 percent of possessions while on the floor this season, according to Kenpom.com, coughed the ball up three times in the final minute and missed a free throw to enable the Buckeyes’ improbable comeback.
After a Grant turnover near the one-minute mark, Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross hit a floater to cut Notre Dame’s lead to six. Then freshman Demetrius Jackson, a talented top-40 recruit, turned the ball over after dribbling into a trap near the sideline, which led to a layup for Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith. Ohio State trapped Grant off the make and the junior unwisely attempted a jump-pass – easy money for a turnover hawk like Buckeyes guard Shannon Scott, who deflected Scott’s pass, was fouled and netted two free throws to narrow the deficit to four.
As if Grant’s and Jackson’s mistakes weren’t bad enough, teammate Pat Connaughton followed up by slapping Smith as he was releasing a three-point shot. Smith had played a bad game, and scored just two points, before stepping to the line for three critical free throws. He drained all three. With the Irish clinging to a one-point lead, freshman Steve Vasturia, who averages 7.4 minutes per game and had attempted zero free throws prior to Saturday night, missed the front-end of a one-and-one. Ohio State took the lead after Smith converted a lay-up with 10 seconds to go. The Buckeyes would hold on from there.
"I'm a senior and I have to find a way to not turn the ball over when we didn't have our point guard in there," Grant said after the game.
It was as crazy a final minute with as abrupt a momentum shift as we’ve seen this season, made even more miraculous by Ohio State’s putrid offensive performance for much of the second half. Ohio State missed 17 of its first 23 shots and went without a field goal for 9 minutes, 10 seconds.
“I don’t really know what happened. It was a big blur,” Buckeyes senior guard Aaron Craft said.
This is a crushing loss for Notre Dame, who entered Saturday’s game looking to build off its panic-diffusing win over Indiana a week earlier in the Crossroads Classic. A victory over Ohio State would have helped offset previous home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State, but now the Irish, after facing Canisius on Dec. 29, will begin ACC play having whiffed on all of their chances for marquee nonconference wins. There will be opportunities for the Irish to score big wins against top-tier competition in conference play, and they can’t afford to let them slip by. The Irish’s ACC opener, a home date with no. 8 Duke on Jan. 4, is an important one.
“I am so thoroughly disappointed,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We had such a good chance at a great win.”
Ohio State may have won this game, but it evinced one major flaw throughout most of the second half that will need to be resolved: The Buckeyes aren’t a great offensive team. In many games that won’t matter, because their defense is so good, they won’t need to score a ton of points to win. But when the level of competition ramps up during the Big Ten play, will Thad Matta’s team -- which ranks 57th nationally in offensive efficiency, behind Big Ten foes Iowa (7th), Wisconsin (16th), Minnesota (17th), Michigan (18th), Michigan State (28th) and Penn State (40th) – have enough scoring to beat elite two-way teams like the Spartans and Badgers? Can players such as Craft, Ross, Smith and center Amir Williams carry the load? The Buckeyes’ defense is not impenetrable; before that hectic final minute, Notre Dame was able to find holes in Ohio State’s coverage. Some Big Ten opponents will presumably be able to do the same.
When the Buckeyes, who shot 35 percent against the Irish in the second half, can’t limit their opponents as effectively as they’d like, they need to find enough scoring to keep up. Saturday night’s win didn’t prove they can.
Team of the week: Florida State
The Seminoles had two chances this week to pick up solid non-conference victories. They didn’t waste either one.
On Tuesday, the Seminoles scored 100 points for the first time since 2005 and throttled Charlotte -- who entered the game 7-2, a legitimate Conference USA contender, having beaten then-no. 14 Michigan in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They followed up Saturday by edging previously undefeated no. 22 UMass on a neutral court to move to 8-3.
"We needed this victory going into the Christmas break," coach Leonard Hamilton told reporters afterward. "Santa Claus came early."
Not only is the win over UMass an impressive result against an ostensibly good team, it’s one of the best data points any team has notched on its resumé so far this season. The Minutemen are ranked no. 2 in the Ratings Percentage Index, the metric the selection committee primarily uses to vet teams’ profiles in March.
The Seminoles, who were picked ninth in the ACC preseason media poll, might not crack the nationwide Top 25, but they look primed to reach the NCAA Tournament after missing the cut last season. Florida State’s neutral court win over VCU in November should look better down the road, as the Rams figure to improve in the coming months, while its only losses (to Michigan on a neutral court, by one point at Florida and at Minnesota) don’t come close to the sort of debilitating non-conference defeats it suffered last season (South Alabama and Mercer at home; at Auburn).
Much like Ohio State, Florida State -- who ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, third in defensive two-point field goal percentage and fifth in effective field goal percentage defense -- will need to prove it can score consistently enough to compete with the ACC’s top teams. The Seminoles currently rank 92nd in offensive efficiency and are turning the ball over on a staggering 22.1 percent of their possessions, which ranks 326th in the nation. Miller and forward Okaro White are Florida State’s most productive scorers, but second-year guard Aaron Thomas, who scored 26 and 18 points, respectively, in the wins over Charlotte and UMass and hit double figures in five out of the last six games, has seemingly made the sophomore leap.
Consecutive losses to the Gators and Gophers diffused most of the national attention the Seminoles garnered after beating VCU and pushing Michigan in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, but if they keep playing this well, they’ll reenter the national conversation before long.
Player of the week: Chasson Randle, Stanford
This may seem like an odd choice, and I admit tha were this solely about individual statistical production, Randle would not be the player of the week. But he gets the nod for a couple of reasons.
Randle led the Cardinal to a potentially season-changing victory earlier this week when he shot 8-for-16 from the field and 4-for-6 from three-point range for 22 points and grabbed five rebounds in a win at no. 10 UConn. Stanford, who had already dropped games to BYU at home and Pitt on a neutral court, badly needed a signature non-conference victory, and Randle helped deliver it.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins called it his most rewarding win since he began coaching the Cardinal in 2008. "I think it is," Dawkins told USA Today Sports. "From the standpoint of the environment that we went into, and not only was it a team that was ranked, but I've always had a great deal of respect for that program and what they've accomplished.
“It's one of the best wins we've had."
The Cardinal had an opportunity to notch their second big win of the week -- and almost certainly clinch this week’s “Team of the week” designation -- when it took on Michigan Saturday night at Barclays Center. It lost, but Stanford’s junior guard rebounded from an ugly first half to score 18 points in the second 20 minutes and make a couple of key plays down the stretch, including a streaking and-1 layup with nine seconds to go to cut Michigan’s lead to one. After Wolverines guard Nik Stauskus composedly sank two free throws, Randle missed a desperation three in the closing moments, but his inability to push the Cardinal over the hump doesn’t gloss over how good he was in the second half.
Beating the Wolverines would have capped a huge week for the Cardinal, but it nonetheless emerges in a much better place than it was in seven days ago, when its NCAA Tournament resumé consisted of seven wins against teams with an average RPI of 200 and losses to the Cougars and Panthers. That’s good news not only for the Cardinal’s Big Dance hopes, but also for Dawkins, who entered this season with a fairly clear mandate from director of athletics Bernard Muir.
“We have set the expectation that we want to be playing (in the NCAAs),” Muir told the San Jose Mercury News in October. Before the season, Dawkins was confident his team could play to Muir’s expectation. “For this year to be a success, we should make the tournament,” Dawkins said at Pac-12 media day. “It’s an attainable goal.”
Had Stanford lost to both UConn and Michigan, it would have needed to notch a few big wins in Pac-12 play to make a reasonable argument for Tournament inclusion. There is much work to be done in conference play, still. The win over the Huskies will only go so far, but it, at the very least, gives the Cardinal a boost before it begins its Pac-12 season Jan. 2 with a home matchup with rival Cal.
Without Randle’s excellent play, Stanford likely would have entered conference play on shaky ground, facing a huge uphill climb in the at-large NCAA Tournament bid derby and with Dawkins feeling even more heat than he was entering the season.
GIF of the week: The Boss fist pumps
Spectacular offensive performances from Duke freshman Jabari Parker have become so ordinary, his sterling effort against UCLA Thursday night at Madison Square Garden couldn’t keep reporters from talking and Tweeting about the rock legend on hand. Bruce Springsteen and his daughter, Jessica, a Duke senior, attended the Blue Devils’ win over the Bruins.
(H/t SB Nation)
Even Parker was pressed to discuss The Boss. “Oh no, that’s ahead of my time,” he said when asked if he was familiar with Springsteen’s music. It seems we’ve reached the point where a 23-point, 10-rebound, five assist game -- something no Duke freshman has accomplished since Corey Maggette in ’98, according to CBSSports' Matt Norlander -- isn’t impressive enough to distract attention from a musician sitting in the stands.
Statistical support for this post provided by Kenpom.com.