Next Game: USC v. Ohio State, Saturday 11.17.11, noon, Colonial Life Arena
When asked about his 2011-2012 Ohio State Buckeyes, head coach Thad Matta reminded folks about last year: "We won 34 games, were the No. 1 overall seed, and we had the No. 51 player drafted in the NBA, and that was it."
Truth be told, OSU lost three veterans off last year's squad, but it's hard to argue with Matta or his perspective. Since taking over the helm in Columbus in 2004, Matta has guided the Scarlet and Gray to five NCAA Tournament appearances (including the 2007 national title game where OSU lost to the UF Gators), two Sweet Sixteen's and an NIT Championship to boot. Since the start of the 2010-2011 season, Ohio State has lost precisely four games ... one of those to a buzzer beater in last year's Sweet Sixteen game with UK. This is a powerhouse club; if you don't think they're a national championship contender, you haven't been paying attention.
The Silver Bullets are currently # 2 in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, with a record of 9-1; the Gamecocks have the privilege of going against them this coming Saturday at noon at the Colonial Life Arena.
In out-of-conference action so far, the Buckeyes have played a mix of cupcakes and heavy-weights.
On the cupcake front, they've held four small-fry clubs under 50 points (Wright State, Jackson State, North Florida and Texas Pan-Am) while averaging 80 points on offense. They even managed to turn that same trick against a strong mid-major Valparaiso team, whipping up on the Crusaders 80-47. That should frighten you a bit, because Valpo is a stronger, deeper club right now than USC.
Against other elite squads, the Buckeyes have played well -- in their second game, they out-played the eighth ranked Florida Gators in the second half to win 84-71, then later on absolutely walloped then # 4 Duke on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Both those games were played in the friendly confines of the Value City Arena (18,000+) in Columbus.
The first major road toast for Ohio State was in Lawrence against # 13 KU right before the December exam break, where the Jayhawks became the first team to step up in 2011 and beat the Buckeyes - 78-67.
So, you may ask, what was KU's secret? Well, first off, Kansas was Kansas - a great club playing at a packed Allen Fieldhouse. Second, Kansas' All-Star Junior Forward Thomas Robinson poured in 21 points and 7 boards, and Senior PG Tyshawn Taylor recorded 13 assists despite a torn meniscus and sprained MCL in his right knee; three other Jayhawks scored in double-digits. Finally, and probably most importantly, Ohio State's number one scorer and rebounder - All Star sophomore Jared Sullinger (6'9") was out of the game with a sprained back.
The Buckeyes returned to action at Value City Arena yesterday (12.14.11) and mauled the USC Upstate Spartans (who USC will play this December too). Sullinger had 23, as did Deshaun Thomas. Props to the Spartans in their first year of Division 1 action, who were the first small-conference/mid-major opponent to break the 50 point barrier against the Scarlet and Gray - losing 82-56
OSU has more going on that just Sullinger. While Coach Matta prefers to play a 7 man rotation, he can easily roll10 in and out for significant minutes. That being said, beyond Sullinger we will get a heavy dose of F William Buford, PG Aaron Craft and F Deshaun Thomas - each of whom is a likely All-B1G selection at the end of the season.
Can the Gamecocks duplicate KU"s success? It's highly doubtful. The way we've been drawing at the Colonial Life Arena, I'd be surprised if we had a full lower circle, so we won't be able to recreate the atmosphere at Allen. Plus Sullinger appears to be back at 100%, which will put more pressure on Malik Cooke and Bruce Ellington than was on KU's Robinson and Taylor.
So how will we show-out? Right now, the jury is still out on the Gamecocks. To have a chance, we need both Cooke and Ellington to have their top performances of the year, and hope that Gill or Harris has a career night, along with significant contributions from Jackson and Slawson. Everyone will have to play with intensity, and find a way to get their share of boards from Sullinger and Thomas.
At the end of the day, however, I think OSU is just going to be too strong - they are deeper, more talented and much more confident. And the darkened upper ring at Colonial Life Arena for a noon game is just not going to inspire much intimidation in a squad that's been to Lawrence, or used to playing before big crowds at home. If we revert back to taking contested three pointers, it will likely be a rout; if we play smart basketball, maybe we can give the Buckeyes a game.
Prediction: Ohio State 84, South Carolina 64.