The Ohio State Buckeyes have been riding high for most of the season. After winning at Minnesota on Tuesday night, they are 22-4 and ranked No. 6 in this week's AP poll.
In other words, it's panic time.
If my e-mails this week are any indication, there is concern, if not outright panic, coming from Buckeye nation in the wake of their 10-point loss at home to Michigan State last Saturday. Given the high expectations for this team, and given that their two wins before that game came by six and three points over Wisconsin and Purdue, respectively, you can understand why some fans would want to reach out in search of answers. Here is a sampling of what hit my inbox over the weekend:
Does Thad Matta just not trust the players on the bench? Can anyone honestly win the tournament with a six-man rotation? (And can someone tell Matta that answer?)-- Carson, Minneapolis
I think Jared Sullinger is a great basketball player and that his team was outworked by the Spartans on Saturday. But how much of his game relies on the refs "bailing" him out and sending him to the foul line? It seemed like he was staring at the refs the whole game, Kobe-style, and when they didn't give him what he wanted he wasn't nearly as effective.-- Chris Seljeskog, Rapid City, SD
Is it a detriment to his team that Thad Matta never seems to sub or have a rotation? Seems like the team is dead tired by March. Even Tom Izzo told his big men to sprint down the court to tire out Sullinger in the Michigan State win.-- Stephanie, Lewis Center, Ohio
How much did the loss against Michigan State and the close win against Purdue expose Ohio State? Is it too late for Thad Matta to try something new in terms of a rotation for slumping players and those who cannot play defense?-- Jonathan, Westerville, Ohio
Let's start with the most pressing question: Is the team's lack of depth a major concern? My answer: Not really.
First of all, Ohio State's bench is not as thin as many people think. According to Kenpom.com, the Buckeyes rank 238th nationally in percentage of bench minutes. That's not real high, but it's still ahead of 12 teams that are also ranked in the top 25, including three of the five that are ahead of OSU: Florida (250), North Carolina (262), UNLV (263), Virginia (265), St. Mary's (302), Notre Dame (313), Missouri (316), Kansas (321), Kentucky (324), Louisville (327), Wisconsin (331) and Michigan (337).
It's hard to say Ohio State's problems (such as they are) stem from Matta's insistence on only playing seven players. After all, Missouri has seven scholarship players in its entire program. I've always thought that fatigue is a vastly overrated concern. These are young kids who love to play big minutes. Besides, a short rotation helps chemistry. Everyone knows they're going to get their shots, and they don't have to worry about getting yanked for every little mistake.
The main problem with having a short bench is that it reduces a team's margin for error. When a starter isn't playing well -- as was the case against the Spartans with William Buford and Deshaun Thomas, who both shot 2-for-12 -- it would be nice if Matta could pluck a guy off the pine and give his team a jolt. That wasn't an option. Lack of depth can also be a problem if a team faces foul trouble. Ohio State was lucky that Sullinger managed to play the whole game despite committing four fouls. Matta's teams typically excel at playing excellent D without fouling, but this team is not quite as adept in that department.
Beyond the questions about depth, I thought Chris from South Dakota made a salient point about Sullinger. He was way too engaged with the refs during the Michigan State game. The Spartans' game plan was clearly to get physical with him, but it's hard to argue that was unfair when Michigan State was whistled for four more fouls than Ohio State, allowing the Buckeyes to attempt six more free throws. Perhaps Sullinger's treatment by opposing defenses has been a little too prominent in his mind. The morning of the Michigan State game, Sullinger's father, Satch, who coached Jared in high school, was quoted in The Columbus Dispatch complaining about "bush-league coaches [who] are beating on him just to make him lose his cool." (I say unnamed, but the Dispatch reporter interpreted Satch's comment as a reference to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.)
Apparently, Matta showed his players video of the loss to Michigan State and pointed out their facial expressions and body language. Said Sullinger, "Honestly, we looked like spoiled brats out there if you look at the tape -- arguing with one another, complaining about calls." Maybe they learned a valuable lesson.
Yes, Sullinger had 10 turnovers against the Spartans, but he also had 17 points and 16 rebounds. You can't pin the loss on him. The bigger problem lately has been the play of William Buford. The 6-foot-6 swingman is the team's lone senior, but he has not shot the ball well for most of the season. His 42.4 field percentage is down from 46.2 last season, and his 37.1 percentage from three is down from 44.2. Buford was spectacular in scoring a career-high 29 points in the win over Purdue, but if you take that game away he was making 33.7 percent from the floor over his last eight games heading into Tuesday night's game at Minnesota. Sullinger and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft have been dependable, but a stool requires three strong legs, and the Buckeyes have too often been trying to make do with two.
So what, in the end, did we learn about Ohio State during that loss? Nothing we didn't already know. This is a very good team, but if it does not play well against another very good team, it is capable of losing -- even at home. Sullinger can expect a lot more roughhousing in the post, but if he can keep his poise, and if Buford can regain his shooting touch, then the nervous nellies in Buckeye Nation won't be complaining about a short bench. As the saying goes, winning is the best deodorant.
On to the rest of the Bag ...
I just finished watching the Charlotte Bobcats receive a systematic beat down by the Philadelphia 76ers and I thought about your belief that the worst in the NBA would crush the best of the NCAA. Two ideas come to my head. 1) NBA defenses play nowhere near as tough as NCAA defenses from the start of a game to the end. NBA defenses wait until the fourth quarter to turn up the intensity; 2) I believe that the type of court would play a major factor especially when considering the three-point lines. What do you think are the most important factors in your belief that worst-NBA would destroy best-NCAA?-- Jon, Rome, NY
I don't think serious basketball people really entertain this question. I only pointed it out because every year someone tries to stir an argument by arguing that a team like Kentucky could beat a team like the Bobcats. From a purely physical standpoint, we're talking boys against men here. Real men. The men will win every time.
Think of it this way: Every year, 60 college players get drafted by the NBA. Maybe a dozen or so free agents will make a roster. Fewer than a dozen of those rookies will have a significant impact in their first season. That means even the worst team in the NBA has a starting five that is superior to 90 percent of the college players who will get drafted.
Make no mistake: The Bobcats -- or the Wizards or the Raptors or the Pistons -- would crush Kentucky. This is a fun argument, but it's not much of a debate.
I see a lot of love in your column for VCU and George Mason. However, there's one school not on this list that has beaten both of those squads this year ... and that's Drexel! They haven't lost a game at home and are on a tear! Why is Drexel getting no attention at all?!-- Anthony Elias, Easton, Pa.
Anthony makes a fair point. Obviously, Drexel does not have the pedigree of having been to the Final Four in recent years, but the Dragons are well worth our attention. Their 63-61 win over William and Mary was their 14th in a row, and they are tied with George Mason for first place in the CAA. However, it's also worth pointing out that Drexel caught a huge break within the league's unbalanced schedule: The Dragons do not have to play either George Mason or VCU on the road. Then again, perhaps that's not such a huge break, because it denies Drexel a chance to pick up a significant road win that could catch the eye of the selection committee.
In fact, I think all three of these teams are going to have a hard time getting at-large bids. None of them have won a single game over a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. They also have lousy nonconference strength of schedule rankings: VCU is 196th, George Mason is 239th and Drexel is 257th. I realize we all said the same thing about VCU last year, and if any of these teams run the table and lose in the conference final they're going to earn a very close look. If Drexel really wants to get some national attention, it's going to have to keep on winning.
UConn will be good for a long, long time. There are way too many pluses to the program. Lots of money, a strong fan base and media interest, excellent support from university at all levels, world class facilities, innumerable NBA alumni. Did I mention lots of money? If you think UConn will fade post-Calhoun, prepare to be disappointed.-- Dave Marinaccio, Washington, D.C.
I wouldn't be disappointed in the slightest to see UConn remain dominant in the post-Calhoun era, but as I pointed out in Hoop Thoughts this week the odds are against that happening in the near term. If nothing else, this program is about to be devoid of good players. That means Calhoun -- or if he retires, his successor -- is going to have to focus on high school juniors for the next recruiting cycle. And that means it will be two years before those kids get on campus, and another year or two before they have an impact.
Keep in mind that one of the main reasons UConn is competitive this season is because of the unusual circumstances that led to Andre Drummond's presence on campus. Drummond was a high school senior bound for a postgraduate year of prep school when he changed his mind over the summer and enrolled in school. You think UConn will get another top-five draft pick in August before his freshman year of college? Neither do I.
So with Illinois falling by the wayside in the Big Ten, is this Coach Weber's swan song? If so, who do the Illini look to especially with a loaded junior class in Chicago?-- Jeff Keane, Tinley Park, IL
I almost didn't include this question because I like Bruce Weber so much and want to see him succeed. However, I'm not exactly breaking news by reporting that the vibes around him are not very good, to say the least. When your athletic director a) didn't hire you and b) says he'll evaluate you at the end of the season, you're being sent a clear message: Win big and win soon.
It's premature to speculate about potential replacements, so I won't bother -- except to point out that I think Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is going to be the hottest mid-major coach this spring. Champaign isn't a great college town along the lines of places like Ann Arbor, Madison, Chapel Hill, Athens et al., but the assets of this job are immense. The connection to Chicago is foremost among them, but keep in mind that recruiting in a big city like Chicago is never easy -- mostly because it's difficult to do it successfully without cheating. Still, Illinois is one of a small handful of schools with a national brand that can draw recruits coast to coast.
I sure hope Weber turns this thing around. He is a good guy and a good coach who has conducted himself with the utmost class. At the end of the day, however, this is about winning. And if Weber can't get this thing done, I promise there will be a long line of coaches begging for the chance to come to Champaign and try.
Missouri can only recruit in the Midwest? Kim English. Heard of him? Baltimore. Missouri doesn't need Kansas. The Missouri/Illinois game played every Christmas in St. Louis is a bigger draw. I fully expect that Missouri vs. Arkansas vs. Tennessee vs. Kentucky will ultimately more than make up for the KU game. Kansas is a second-tier academic institution that thinks it invented basketball. Good riddance.-- Don Patton, St. Louis
You go, girlfriend! Hey, I've got nothing against Missouri. This team is one of the great stories of this college basketball season.
One question, though: If Missouri doesn't need Kansas, why are Frank Haith and Mike Alden publicly lobbying to keep the series alive? Yes, the Pressey brothers are from Texas and English hails from Baltimore, but three of the team's seven scholarship players come from Kansas City. Don't you think the move to the SEC will make recruiting in the Midwest just a little more challenging? As for Kansas acting like it invented the game, that dig might have more resonance if the guy who did invent the game wasn't the school's first coach.
While I disagree with the substance of Don's e-mail, I must say I do enjoy the bile he has for Kansas. It's a shame that conference expansion is costing us one of the real special rivalries in all of sports. But I repeat: It's Missouri, not Kansas, that deserves the blame. As the great basketball philosopher Hyman Roth once said: "This is the business we've chosen."