By Bruce Hooley
Ohio State’s post-season ceiling may be climbing in the wake of its 68-60 upset of No. 4 Michigan State on Sunday at Value City Arena.
The win, just OSU’s second in nine games against ranked opponents, passes for its best performance of the season. Yes, even better than a 56-53 victory over then-No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 13.
Because if Ohio State is to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament, it must get contributions from more than just junior Deshaun Thomas. He scored 20 in the earlier win over Michigan, and had 28 in Ohio State’s 59-56 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 19.
That’s what the Buckeyes have been all season, a team which can win if Thomas has a big game, but one that is doomed if he struggles.
Thomas shot 1-of-8 in the first half. Although he contributed two three-point field goals to a 24-5 OSU burst early in the second half, and finished with 14 points, he was never the engine driving the bus to victory over the Spartans.
Junior guard Aaron Craft did the heavy lifting with 21 points, but his fingerprints weren’t alone on this significant win.
It traced instead to 19-of-23 free throw shooting, stout defense and meaningful contributions off the bench from Evan Ravenel, Shannon Scott and LaQuinton Ross.
Craft showed exceptional decision-making on his drives to the basket, cashing in often and not once taking an ill-advised attempt blocked by a bigger defender to feed a breakout at the other end. Such poor choices have gotten OSU beaten before, most notably against Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen in 2011 and at Michigan earlier this season.
Likewise, Scott offered a few aggressive drives to the basket, ran some nice two-man action with Ravenel and generally kept OSU’s offense flowing when in control at the point.
Ross rebounded effectively, ran the floor in transition and converted a put-back, then hit a crucial three-pointer off Craft’s assist. Too often this year, Ross seemed interested in nothing more than launching from long range. He seems to be figuring out it will take more for him to gain minutes, and that’s a big step in the right direction for him and OSU.
Head coach Thad Matta’s offense can degenerate into nothing beyond multiple passes around the perimeter until the shot clock forces a three-pointer, but the Buckeyes screened well against MSU and often earned good looks at the basket against one of the Big Ten’s better defensive teams.
Now 20-7 overall and 10-5 in the league, OSU still sits in fifth place, one spot outside a first-round bye for the conference tournament. It should win two of its remaining three games -- Thursday at Northwestern, March 5 at Indiana, March 10 vs Illinois -- to finish 22-8 and 12-6.
That may not be enough to edge into the top four in the standings. But even if it isn’t, the bigger key to Ohio State’s post-season success rests on whether it can continue to receive the sort of contributions from players besides Thomas that made the difference against Michigan State.
If so, the Buckeyes could play into the Sweet Sixteen, instead of heading home for good on the Tournament’s first weekend.
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”
Email Bruce email@example.com
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