When Opportunity Knocks...
The Ohio State Buckeyes travel to East Lansing for the only scheduled match-up between the Buckeyes and Spartans this season. The Buckeyes' visit presents MSU with a strong opportunity to gain a "Top 50" win as they work to build their Tournament resume. At 19-6 and 8-4 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are currently ranked #23 in the nation but Ohio State is only 3-5 against RPI Top 50 teams and have not beaten a "Top 50" team on the road this season.
Gotta Talk About D'Angelo...
This season's version of the Buckeyes revolve around their soon to be one-and-done freshman D' Angelo Russell. Currently considered to be a #2 pick in the NBA draft, Russell can do a bit of everything on offense and do it well. Russell averages 19.4 points per game, (2nd in the Big Ten) and can both shoot from long distance, 43% from beyond the arc, as well as slash to the rim--as Russell is shooting 50% on his two-point shot attempts.
D'Angelo's ability to distribute the ball, (5.5 apg), and to drop highlight passes has lead Coach Matta to move Russell to the point more often and opponents will be sure to see Russell with the ball at the end of the shot clock. Russell also leads the team in rebounds with 5.9 rebounds per game and has two 14-rebound games in Big Ten play. Russell's breadth of skills was on full display last Sunday against New York-New Jersey market Rutgers when he picked up the fourth triple-double in Ohio State men's basketball history with a 23 point, 11 assist, and 11-rebound game.
Though NBA ready, Russell is not perfect and he's had some clunker games against top-level competition. In a 64-55 loss to Louisville, Russell shot 6 of 20 from the field and had 4 turnovers. In Ohio State's loss to North Carolina, Russell shot 4 of 17. In the Buckeyes 71-65 home loss to Iowa, Russell shot 4 of 16 from the field and in Ohio State's loss to Indiana at Bloomington he shot only 3 of 15.
The Buckeyes second leading scorer, Marc Loving, will return from a three-game suspension Saturday just in time for the match-up with the Spartans. Adding 11.3 ppg, the sophomore forward has been dangerous from three-point land where he is shooting 53% on the season. Also adding 3.9 rebounds per game, Loving, during his three-game suspension, may have been most noticeably missed in Ohio State's 2-point loss to Purdue in the first game of his suspension.
The Buckeyes also have three freshman who can see significant minutes per game. Freshman forward Jae'Sean Tate has made a very strong contribution in Big Ten play where he has put up two, twenty-point games, one against Indiana and the other against Rutgers last Sunday. Tate, who currently lacks a long-distance game, does most of his damage in close and has the ability to get to the rim and finish at 6'4". Tate also has the toughness to play power forward when Coach Matta wants to go small and provides a good rebounding presence at 4.8 rebounds per game. Tate's minutes have increased as the season has gone on and he is now beginning to see around 30 minutes per game. Freshman guard Kam Williams provides the Buckeyes with another three-point threat. Williams, who is averaging 6.8 points per game, has struggled though since Big Ten play began, especially shooting the three ball. In Big Ten play Williams has shot only 7 of 27 from beyond the arc and is only averaging 3 points per Big Ten contest. 6'7" freshman forward Keita Bates-Diop has played his best two games of his season in the last two games, putting up 14 points and 9 rebounds in 19 minutes against Rutgers and 7 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes against Penn State. Other than those two games though, Bates-Diop has only seen more than 5 minutes on court in one other game in Big Ten play with 15 minutes in a loss to Indiana.
Oh, and those Matta seniors...(but, with any Ohio State player, I would never, ever, ever think to say the term "arrested development")...
Ohio State plays five seniors this season: Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald, and Anthony Lee.
I have never been impressed by Coach Matta and his staff's ability to develop players over the course of four seasons and this year's Ohio State seniors have, yet again, failed to convince me to the contrary.
Sam Thompson, averaging 10.2 points per game, is still capable of a highlight dunk but the 6'7" senior looks to be basically the same player he was a s a sophomore with a 3-point shot which has regressed from 40% as a sophomore to 24% this season. Shannon Scott's assist numbers have improved with having D'Angelo Russell as his running mate, but he still lacks an outside shot, 24% from three-point land, and is averaging the same 7.5 points per game he did as a junior while taking more shots. Senior 6'11" center Amir Williams has had his minutes reduced from 23 minutes as a junior to 18 minutes as a senior. Williams is shooting an outstanding 69% from the field but is only taking just over 3 shots per game while averaging only 4.8 rebounds per contest, so, not great production after four years under Matta. 6'8" senior center Trey McDonald plays 10 minutes per game and averages 3.1 ppg to go with 2.6 rebounds. McDonald's best performance of his season came against Sacred Heart when he had an 8-point and 14-rebound game but he's put up nothing close to that against Big Ten competition. Anthony Lee, a 5th year senior, transferred in from Temple, but has been a disappointment. Lee averaged 13.6 ppg and 8.6 rebounds as a junior at Temple but has been lost in the shuffle at Ohio State where he is playing an inconsistent number of minutes in Big Ten play.
From my years of watching this Michigan State rival under Coach Matta, it seems to me that Buckeye players, over the course of their four years, might grow a little physically, and get used to college-game speed from freshman to sophomore year, and get more shots and more minutes as Buckeye players disappear to the benches of the NBA or D-League, but, under Coach Matta, his 4-year players often seem to end up not far from where they were as freshman with it often seeming that their sophomore year was their best season as a Buckeye.
Last season, over at our Ohio State brother site, LandGrantHolyLand, Chuck McKeever did a nice job on this very question of whether Thad Matta can develop players. Check out his analysis here: Can Thad Matta Develop Players?
My argument: The Buckeyes, for all their Big Ten success, currently only have seven players in the NBA. The most successful of those players, Mike Conley, only stayed one season. Jared Sullinger has improved in his time in the NBA, but only stayed two years at Ohio State. The other Ohio State NBA'ers: Kosta Kuofus, Byron Mullins, Daequan Cook, and the ever-injured Greg Oden only stayed for one year each. Evan Turner stayed for three seasons but Turner has never been seen as a great teammate and his presence greatly helped destroy the Indiana Pacers chemistry last season.
As for other Buckeyes of late:
William Buford, D-League.
Aaron Craft, D-League. (Wait, I thought the most perfect basketball player, (and second greatest human being to Tim Tebow), who God ever made was going to medical school? Or, that's what we heard a whole 9.8 times per game for a seeming four straight seasons--also how many points per game Craft averaged as a senior).
Deshaun Thomas, Spain.
LaQuinton Ross, (declared early for draft but went un-drafted), Italy.
Lenzelle Smith Jr., D-League.
But, enough talk about the 2014-2015 D-League All Stars, Euro Leagues, and the Medical School Intramural Team! Let's get back to this Saturday...but wait, wasn't Ohio State playing zone defense this year?
Though Thad Matta said he had his team working extensively on playing the 2-3 zone defense this summer, the Ohio State zone defense was scrapped two games into Big Ten play and ever since the Buckeyes have been back to playing man-to-man. Though up until the Big Ten season Coach Matta continued to insist that he liked where his team's zone defense was at, veteran players didn't seem to like the change and the zone was creating some rebounding issues for OSU. After losing to Iowa in their Big Ten opener, the 2-3 zone was put on the shelf. Ohio State has a record of 8-3 since the change.
And for the Spartans...
Javon Bess is out, and to replace those key minutes off the bench MSU has to hope from here-on-out that Marvin Clark Jr. can get "dialed in" and that Alvin Ellis III can start to contribute more than just being a ball mover on the perimeter and a defensive body on the court. It will be interesting to see if Tum Tum Nairn gets the start at point guard again. Personally, I like Trice coming off the bench after the opposing point guard has had to chase Tum Tum around for 3 minutes...seems like a slight advantage to me.
A prediction? D'Angelo will reach double figures, but from there...
Few teams have been able to stop D'Angelo Russell this season, but to have success against Ohio State the Spartans will need to slow Russell and be mindful enough to both play help defense while being aware of OSU cutters. Active feet and hands to swipe at least a couple of Russell's passes would be helpful.
If the Spartans can put out the same angry and intimidating defensive effort they did against Northwestern, being at home in The Breslin, I expect a 4-point win. If the Spartans can set-up Russell and then have Branden Dawson or Trice steal one of his pocket passes early, expect a 10-point plus win.
The hope for these Spartans...
Perhaps Tuesday's game against Northwestern showed MSU what they need to do this season, with this team, to reach their highest level of play, and a defense-first and score-enough-points mentality has been a proven and successful recipe for many-a-Sweet-16 team in the past. I also get the sense that enough work, and time, and attention, has been paid and put in now that MSU's free throw shooting woes are over. Expect The Izzone to be getting louder with every made free throw make on Saturday during a fun Michigan State win!