The box score reveals much of what most had come to expect from this year’s Ohio State basketball team. Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 25 points, the Buckeyes forced 19 turnovers and the team shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Ohio State’s 83-71 win over Walsh in an exhibition game on Tuesday night in Value City Arena, however, wasn’t enough for Thad Matta to shake off memories of one of the longest nights of his coaching career with the Buckeyes.
“I think that’s the situation is you have to face the facts,” Matta said after the win. “As I said after the game to the team, I had a little déjà vu (of when we were headed) into the 07-08 season (and lost the exhibition game).”
Coming off the 2006 season that ended in with a trip to the Final Four, the Buckeyes began the following season without some of the integral pieces from the previous year and lost to Division II foe Findlay in an exhibition game.
This season the Buckeyes were in a similar situation. Like then, Ohio State is coming off a Final Four run having lost two of the most prolific players in program history in Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
The first game without those bookends wasn’t pretty this time, either.
“It is frustrating any time you’re losing in a game, not only in exhibitions games,” junior point guard Aaron Craft said. “Whoever we’re playing. Facing adversity and facing it when things aren’t going your way, it has already hit us. We already have a taste.”
Given the fact Ohio State has yet to realize its identity, it’s no wonder the Buckeyes were flat at times. Matta used the exhibition game as a chance to test out an array of different lineups, which was evident from the beginning when he unexpectedly started sophomore LaQuinton Ross at small forward.
Ross fired up an ill-advised shot on Ohio State’s first possession – the first time he touched the ball this season – but settled down to finish the game as the team’s second-leading scorer with 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting.
The Buckeyes staff, however, rotated early and often. Sam Thompson, who was expected to start in place of Ross, also had a productive game, scoring 11 points after making five of his nine attempts from the floor.
“Honestly, I knew going in I was going to start a different lineup,” Matta said. “Sam has been tremendous, and I wanted him to come off the bench.”
While Matta was experimenting with different lineups – eight players played 14 or more minutes – Walsh was off to a quick start.
The Buckeyes trailed for much of the first half before finishing the final 5:15 on a 17-3 run to take a 39-30 advantage into the locker room. Walsh hung around the entire second half, as the Buckeyes managed to outscore the Cavaliers by only three in the final 20 minutes of the game.
“Coach said he was going to try different guys and that it was going to be a test,” Thomas said. “It didn’t work, though. A couple of players are off to the side by themselves. That’s what the coach wanted to see – us be like a circle, and a few guys were outside of the circle. They didn’t pass the test.”
Thomas did. In his first game as the Buckeyes’ primary scoring threat, Thomas found open shots with ease. He came off screens, created his own looks and scored in the paint. The only thing Thomas did struggle with was his outside shot, converting on only 1-of-6 attempts from beyond the arc despite a slew of clean looks.
“It felt great coming off screens and knocking shots down,” Thomas said. “It just felt great to be back on the court and playing. We have to get everyone involved, though, because once the season opposing defenses are going to be focused on me.”
Matta said he had a sense in the team’s practice last night that the Buckeyes weren’t going to play to their full, as the team stopped performing with the intensity the head coach witnessed for the team’s first 18 preseason practices.
In October, Matta will rest easy knowing things are coming together. The exhibition game was a win, but it also served as a reminder that the team has mountains to climb before it truly asserts itself as a top five team.
“We started to freak a little bit,” Matta said, “but there are a lot of new faces out there right now.”
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