Now that Duke claims three wins over teams that once resided in the top five of the national polls this early in the season, Ohio State could take solace in knowing it held a late second-half lead over the talented Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium before suffering a close loss in a hostile environment.
A harsh gut-check analyzing the reasons the Buckeyes couldn’t close out the win is the more typical approach for Thad Matta, who contended from the beginning of the season that he’d learn a lot about his team from how they performed at Duke.
Ohio State is no longer a top five team – it is ranked No. 7 in the most recent polls – and the clear reason the Buckeyes no longer have that placement in the national rankings is the same reason it lost to the Blue Devils.
It hasn’t found a consistent scoring threat to complement Deshaun Thomas.
“We knew our guards were going to have to have a big game in order to win,” Matta said after the Duke loss. “They weren’t going to leave Deshaun’s body. The shots that we got are what we expected to get. They just didn’t go down for us.”
The most obvious candidates before the Duke game did little to solve the problem, as Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott combined to convert only 10 of 41 shots taken from the field.
Ohio State’s opponents will continue to approach defending the Buckeyes by trying to take Thomas away, particularly because the junior forward is the only proven scorer on the team’s roster.
Thomas will still get his points – he scored 16 against the Blue Devils despite missing much of the first half with foul trouble – but the Buckeyes will have trouble closing out elite opponents such as Duke without finding Thomas a sidekick.
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross, who scored a career-high 22 points in the Buckeyes’ bounce-back win over Northern Kentucky on Dec. 1, could be the answer.
Despite scoring five points in 10 minutes in the first half of the Duke game in the most important minutes of his young career, Ross didn’t get back onto the floor until 1:32 remained in the contest. By then, it was too little too late.
Matta admitted he probably should have found more minutes for Ross against the Blue Devils in the second half. Instead, the head coach allotted 29 minutes of action for the sophomore in the team’s next game and was rewarded with a scoring onslaught. Still, Matta wants to see further development from the youngster on both sides of the floor before Ross earns his full trust.
Like all the scoring options on this team, Ross had a single-game offensive performance that is notable. Whether he can continue to do that on a game-by-game basis, however, is what will make a difference for the Buckeyes.
For the time being, expect Ohio State to rely on more experienced players such as Craft and Smith, though neither has become an offensive threat Matta knows he can count on for anywhere between 15-20 points per game.
Craft specifically was the player the Buckeyes needed to score against Duke, and he found all the open looks he could ask for in the waning moments of the game while the Blue Devils focused on stopping Thomas down the stretch.
While being double-teamed, Thomas didn’t score for the final 8:25 of the game and Craft did little offensively to help his team overcome that, making only three of his 15 field-goal attempts in the hostile environment. Many of those looks for Craft were what Matta designed, yet the junior point guard couldn’t knock down the shots.
“I just missed shots – plain and simple,” Craft said. “There’s no excuse for that.”
Those looks will remain available for Craft or any of the other options the Buckeyes boast as Thomas continues to be the focal point of the opposition’s defensive strategy.
The hope for Ohio State is that missed shots won’t become a trend, but the team has failed to shoot at least 40 percent from the floor in each of its last two games.
“We know we have to find other guys besides Deshaun to score,” Scott said. “I am confident in the guys on this team, and I don’t think it will be a problem. We just have to get to work.”
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