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Bax's Bucket Rolls On!

FROM FLAT OUT BALLIN’ TO FREE FALLIN’

Remember when Lenzelle Smith Jr. used to rain open shots after a ton of ball movement?

Normally, I don’t write a lot about Ohio State basketball. You see, aside from the fact that I’m significantly more invested in football, I usually have serious trouble coming up with any major criticisms for the program. Not when Big Ten Championships (focus on the plural) keep piling up at the Schott.

I’ve consistently found myself grateful for the success that Thad Matta has brought to our fine university and when I get frustrated with him for things like keeping a short bench, I remember how bad things were in the days of O’Brien and thank my lucky stars that Thad is on our side. In short, Ohio State basketball was largely an afterthought before Thad to the vast majority of us and it seems downright churlish to complain when the last five years have exceeded what I believed our program’s ceiling to be.
In short, we’re not just a football school anymore and we have Matta to thank for it.

But this year has been different for me and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Since 2006-07, Ohio State has consistently come up short in the NCAA tournament after a great regular season, but beyond frustration (and occasionally short-term despondency like last year’s Kentucky disaster) at the end of the campaign, I usually find myself looking at our basketball program with great satisfaction.

Yet when those teams fell short, they did so with maximum effort and minimal drama off the court. Sure, we remember Daquan Cook’s mom being angry that her son didn’t play more in his only season on campus. Yeah, we had a couple of one-and-done Seven Footers in Koufos and Mullens that we expected more from before they bolted. But they didn’t dominate the news about their teams like the off-court drama has this last month.

And we never have had a season like this, where Ohio State basketball came out of the gates like berserkers. Remember how they ripped top ten Florida and Duke teams apart and many people --myself included-- were giddily anticipating another legitimate shot at a National Championship?
Even through the end of January, when OSU only boasted road losses at Kansas (without Sullinger), Indiana (with the most biased refs in human history) and Illinois (where Brandon Paul accidentally thought he was Kobe Bryant), I was confident that the Buckeye Ballers were on the absolute short list with Kentucky and Syracuse for this year’s Final Four.

Yet since a fantastic win at Wisconsin, this team has been a confused mishmash of talent and complaining. It’s like winning in Badgerland suddenly sapped them of all of their mojo. Maybe Dr. Evil stole it or maybe a young group just got overconfident, I don’t honestly know.

But since that wonderful Saturday in Madison, Ohio State looked ugly edging Purdue at home, embarrassed themselves against Michigan State and lost to that insufferable bunch of buffoons in Ann Arbor while a bunch of top football recruits were watching. Just when it looked like the Bucks had woken up with a beat down of Illinois, they turned around and lost at home on Senior Day to the Badgers and then had to stop a furious rally by effing Northwestern to squeak out a win this week!

Not exactly the resume of a team that has a chance to win a championship in the country’s best conference. Throw in the grousing about playing time from the backups, the uncertainty about whose team this is supposed to be in crunch time and the fact that Matta was so disgusted with his team that he threw them out of practice last weekend and things have taken a decided turn for the worst in the last month.

Yet here we are, sitting on the doorstep of a game today at 4 PM --Bucknuts’ super in-depth preview is right here—where a reversal of last month’s unpleasantness will result in another conference championship. That’s incredible considering everything, even if we have to share the title.

But what is Ohio State going to have to do to make an upset in the Spartan TerrorDome a reality? The obvious answer is to shoot the ball significantly better than they have been lately, with a particular emphasis on senior Will Buford. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know he’s a polarizing figure and I’m no Buford hater, but we need senior leadership and outside shooting and he’s supposed to be our key guy for both.

Simply put, Will needs to step up. When I was on 92.3 The Fan yesterday in Cleveland, I said that if Buford came out and had a good to great shooting day then the Buckeyes had a great shot at pulling out the “W” in East Lansing. Conversely, if he plays poorly –his shooting day against Kentucky still gives me twitches—then we’re in a world of trouble.

That’s a nice, simple explanation, but the reality is that Buford hasn’t been the only guy struggling in the last month. There’s a lot more complex answer to what ails this team than the outpouring of anger towards our team’s only senior.

I think that Bucknuts basketball guru Lee Caryer said it best in his column last week: Let the offense flow instead of forcing dumb shots early in possessions.

That has the dual effect of involving more players (remember when Lenzelle Smith Jr. used to rain open shots after a ton of ball movement?) and making more effective use of the basketball when we’re on Michigan State’s half of the court. Simply put, the last time we played the Spartans, our hoopsters held them to a respectable 58 point outing. But defense hasn’t been an issue all season outside of a brain fart against Purdue: When you only score 48 points, you’re not going to beat a lot of teams, particularly top five outfits like MSU.

Caryer also made another great point: Unlike football, everything is still on the table this season for the Bucks. Big Ten regular season title, Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs afterwards all still await us. Now we have to see whether the Buckeyes of March are more like the disappointing and disjointed February gang or the worldbeaters who spent the first two months of the year drilling teams.

But regardless of the outcome today, there is one unquestioned bright spot: Our archrivals to the north will likely find themselves in quite the rooting pickle if they beat Penn State (as expected). See, if Ohio State knocks of Sparty, then the Big Ten Championship will be a three way split.
That means that the Wolverines’ hope for a conference championship is COMPLETELY contingent upon Ohio State also winning a share of the crown. And for that to happen, they have to root for us to win! Like in football, That School Up North continues to rely on the state of Ohio to get anything done and that’s always worth reveling in.

In fact, as much as I want our Bucks to win the Big Ten, there’s a little part of me that won’t be too upset if they don’t, purely because it would extend their combined Big Ten Championship drought in football and Men’s Basketball into its eighth year. Heck, in basketball, they haven’t won the regular season title since 1986 or the tournament since 1998! Both are streaks that I would love to see continue.

So there’s the silver lining for today’s game: If Ohio State wins then Thad gets his fifth conference crown in eight years and our tournament hopes look a lot brighter. But if Ohio State falls short, then the Wolverines continue on their major hardware whiff-a-thon. Either way, I can live with the outcome.

PRIDE COMETH BEFORE THE FALL

Speaking of the Urine and Blue, former Wolverine center David Molk burst onto the scene this week by trashing every single player in the history of football as inferior to himself. Dave Biddle and I had a field day on Thursday’s Front Row Radio mocking Molk’s Tyson-esque rant about Wisconsin center Peter Konz, whose sole transgression was having the audacity to be a much higher rated player at the same position.

But Molk wasn’t done, trashing highly respected NFL Network draft analysis Mike Mayock –the best in the business for my money—by saying that he hadn’t played against him, so he clearly couldn’t understand his physical awesomeness. Gee, with logic like that, I bet he was one of the Wolverines with a General Studies major. And they like to claim they’re the Harvard of the Midwest…………..

Now we’ve seen our share of Meatheads from That Team in the past and dealt with them properly. We all remember Mike Hart’s continual yapping that resulted in an 0-4 record against Ohio State (remember the hilarious 2007 smackdown after he claimed he was coming back to Beat the Buckeyes?), a lifetime of regret and sorrow for his inability to come through on his promises, a legacy that spurred Michigan State to four straight wins in their rivalry and a college career that will best be remembered for losing to Appalachian Friggin’ State in his senior year.

My only regret is that Mikey didn’t get a Dead Schembechlers song in honor of his contributions to Ohio State like his Teammate in Perpetual Failure, Chad Henne

But I guess the Defenestration of Mike Hart taught Molk a lesson, since he largely flew under our radar during his time in Ann Arbor. Maybe it was the fact that he was 0-4 against OSU before the cosmic implausibility that led to our worst season in 114 years last fall or maybe it was the fact that they largely mimicked Indiana football for most of his career. Either way, his incoherent rambling and pro wrestling-style putdowns of both Konz and Buckeye Mike Brewster (who went 3-1 against you, Molky. Just sayin’) frustrate me that he didn’t leave Schembechlerville with a historic 0-5 record against the Scarlet and Gray.

See why is NEVER acceptable to lose to Michigan? Yeah, I just used the “M Word.” I want everyone who made one of those “Well, the rivalry is better if they win every so often” comments in the last five years to remember this and never say something like that again. MeatChicken Braggin’ Beans are the most enduring creature on the planet, this side of the common cockroach and Keith Richards, so you NEVER let them see the light of day!

Yet this after-the-fact yapping from Molk is emblematic of the undercurrent running through That Other Stinky State these days. Much like Florida fans, who believe college football didn’t start until 1990 –seriously, they were flat-out terrible for 70 years before Spurrier—it seems that all the denizens of the Blue seem to believe that 2011 was the first time that Ohio State and That Team played against each other.

Ever.

Combine that with some undeniable recruiting momentum (at least on the offensive line) and a funny new nickname for us from a coach who could not have asked for more breaks in his first season on the job and they think they’re the Cock of the Walk these days.

Luckily for us, there happens to be a guy named Urban F’ing Meyer sitting in the big office in Columbus who is going to backhand them out of their current Fantasyland in 265 days and on an almost yearly basis afterward, judging by his career record in rivalry games. But unfortunately, they also have the next 265 days to get a decade’s worth of frustration out and since their return date with the Scarlet and Gray in the Horseshoe is so far away, they’re going to continue to be insufferable, at least until Alabama ransacks them in September.

Now, I know a lot of our Buckeye brethren have to deal with these smirking buffoons on a daily basis so I’ve put together a top ten list of comebacks that will leave the [link url=”http://calwestray.tripod.com/images/morons.jpg”]ostensibly intelligent and educated but in reality bloviated and brainless Michiganders[/link] looking at you slack-jawed like Cletus from the Simpsons

1) The Game in the last 11 years: Ohio State leads 9-2.
2) Career record of Brady Hoke: 58-52 (including 34-38 at a low end MAC school)
3) Number of nine win seasons for Brady Hoke: Three in Nine tries
4) Number of career conference championships for Brady Hoke: Zero
5) Number of National Championships for Brady Hoke: HAHAHAHAHA
6) Career record of Urban Meyer: 104-23 (including 17-6 at a low end MAC school. Sorry BG Bucks)
7) Number of nine win seasons for Urban Meyer: Eight in Ten tries
8) Number of career conference championships for Urban Meyer: Four
9) Number of National Championships for Urban Meyer: Two
10) Career Bowl record for Urban Meyer: 7-1 (Including 4-0 in BCS Games)

Bottom line is that while they’ve moved out of the Indiana “Introduction to Football” level that defined the Rich Rodriguez tenure, the sledding isn’t going to be so easy in the future for those thieves of the Princeton helmet.
And all that bragging we’re dealing with now is going to slowly quiet as we approach The Game. I don’t remember a time in my decade-plus since becoming a Buckeye that I’ve ever been anticipating spring football as much as I am right now.

LOOKING AT A BRIGHT FUTURE

Yet there’s plenty of football-related fare to occupy us today, namely in the world of recruiting. Ohio State is in the process of loading up on a class that the experts fully expect to roll in near the top of the ledger in February. Right now, the Bucks just happen to have 247Sports’ highest average rating per recruit with five prospects in the barn. Observe:

1) Jalin Marshall, Athlete. 5 Stars, 8th Overall Nationally He’s only the Number One player in the state of Ohio in the Bucknuts 50 Not to mention that literally every person who has watched him play expects him to be on the field from Day One in Columbus.

2) Cameron Burrows, Cornerback. 4 Stars, 30th Overall Nationally Number Two in the Bucknuts 50, Burrows is tall enough that if he stays at cornerback like expected then he is going to be scary good. Think of Patrick Peterson in terms of physical dominance.

3) Eli Woodard, Cornerback. 4 Stars, 83rd Overall Nationally Woodard is the nation’s 6th rated cornerback prospect, giving OSU the country’s top tandem in this class. He comes with the added bonus of being close to a couple of top New Jersey players (hello, Greg Webb!) Ohio State is hot in pursuit of. Early indications are that he’s recruiting HARD for the Buckeyes.

4) Billy Price, Defensive Tackle. 4 Stars, 205th Overall Nationally Price completes the top trio of in-state prospects heading to Columbus, as he’s third overall in the Bucknuts 50 Every comparison is to John Simon, down to the number he wears, so expect that National ranking to rise throughout the year.

5) Evan Lisle, Offensive Tackle. 4 Stars Lisle is the 9th rated player in the Bucknuts 50 and the top rated offensive lineman in the Buckeye state. Anytime you pick up a four star guy who is the best O-Lineman in Ohio while beating out Alabama and Notre Dame for him, it is cause for celebration.

And let’s be real, it is SOOOOO early right now that any recruiting concern for OSU would be like a Tribe fan fretting about only scoring 6 runs in the third inning of a May game against the Baltimore Orioles. Do what you’d do if you were at the Jake on a warm spring Saturday and the home team was doing great: Grab a beer or two, put your feet up and enjoy the day, because Urban definitely didn’t retire his Tractor Beam after last year’s class was inked.

So what’s left for Ohio State? Well, for starters, both Duane Long and I see offensive tackles Hunter Bivin and Ethan Pocic as the top two needs in this class. Luckily, Steve Wiltfong from 247Sports reported yesterday that he had been told that Ohio State is the team to beat for Pocic. That’s the nation’s 60th overall prospect, folks, so he’d be an enormous ‘get’ for Urban.

Meanwhile, Bucknuts’ own Bill Kurelic (happy birthday to the Dean!) said a while back that he thinks that Kentucky native Bivin is extremely high on the Buckeyes, which is great news considering he’s the 76th overall prospect in the country. If our offensive line class features Pocic, Bivin and Lisle, then that’s a great foundation on the line going forward. Add in a fourth from the group of Colin McGovern, John Montelus and plenty of other highly rated players from out of state and we’d have a dynamite group up front.

I know we’re all still scarred by our line getting Bollman’d, but Meyer sure seems focused on fixing that problem quickly, doesn’t he?

But there are so many more players out there that the staff is pursuing, from states as far away as Texas, North Carolina and Florida. While Meyer appears intent on snapping up the best Ohioans (Four star linebacker Courtney Love, a top ten player in-state, appears to be the next domino to fall our way), The Urb is going to go all over the country to chase prospects.

Judging by his track record, I’m pretty sure he’s going to land his fair share of them too.

Not to mention that New Jersey appears to be a new Buckeye hot spot: Woodard already is heavily in the ear of his best friend, DT Greg Webb (102nd overall) and DE Tashaun Bowers (100th overall). Bowers has a ton of family in Ohio and has been high on the Buckeyes for what seems like a year now. If that trio comes west (and it’s a real possibility) then look out.
Heck, it seems like a new face pops up every week in the crazy new world of Urban Meyer. You hear of new unofficial visits seemingly every week, the expected Spring Game sellout is expected to draw top recruits like moths to a klieg light and then there’s the July debut of Friday Night Lights in the Horseshoe.

In short, there is no offseason at Bucknuts: The news simply never stops here and we’re glad you’re along for the ride. Now buckle up, there’s a basketball title at stake and undoubtedly more recruiting news on deck.

Full speed ahead.

Matt Baxendell is the People’s Champion of Buckeye Nation. Part of the “Nation” right now, he’s more than ready to get back to the Buckeye state permanently. His four children’s first initials will someday spell O-H-I-O, though Bax only has made it to “O” so far. Follow Bax on Twitter @MattBaxendell or hit him up via email at matt.baxendell@gmail.com

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