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Commentary: The real problem with Ohio State basketball

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I normally don’t buy into the whole “intangibles win games” argument. I respect that intangibles exist, but when it comes down to it, in any sport, it’s the team that has the most talented players that normally comes away with the victory.

But as the Ohio State men’s basketball team continues to throw away any chance of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and looks destined for another early tournament exit, I can’t fathom any other crippling flaw on this team other than lack of intangibles.

OSU is undoubtedly talented. After Kentucky and North Carolina, I don’t believe any other team can match up to the Buckeyes when it comes to pure basketball skill. Sophomore forward Jared Sullinger is likely a top-10 pick in the NBA if he decides to declare for the draft after this year. Senior guard William Buford has an NBA-ready game (although his play recently has surely given his draft stock a hit). And sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas is as potent of a scorer as there is in the Big Ten.

Throw in sophomore guard Aaron Craft’s defensive game that ranks as one of the best in the country and OSU has talent in excess.

So what’s the problem? Why has OSU lost two out of three games and appeared out of sync since after the Michigan game on Jan. 29?

It’s the intangibles.

There was a point in Saturday’s Michigan game that particularly stuck out. Thad Matta, who traditionally is a relatively calm in-game coach, got right up in Buford’s face during a timeout and started chewing the team’s lone senior out.

Buford, who shot 3-12 in the game and finished with 6 points, struggled the entire contest and Matta, I’m sure, was trying to snap him out of his funk.

But the confrontation reveals a larger problem.

Think about it. Matta, in the middle of a heated road game with Big Ten title implications, had to use valuable time to try and motivate a player who should be the team’s leader. As the Buckeye’s only senior, Buford should be the one trying to motivate everyone else.

Before the season began, Buford and his teammates said he stepped up into that leadership role. They said the normally laid-back Buford transformed and became more vocal.

“He changed,” Thomas said of Buford before the season. “He started talking to us more, telling us what we got to do.”

There hasn’t been much of that lately. The Buckeyes are left to guess whether Buford will show up ready to play and Matta has had to resort to screaming.

David Lighty was the leader of the team last year. He was Matta’s on-court coach and motivator.

Former OSU walk-on and current ESPN writer, Mark Titus, said Lighty’s intangibles were invaluable.

“Lighty was more valuable from an intangible standpoint than just being the guy who made sure everyone got along,” Titus said in a preseason article he wrote for ESPN. “He was also the guy who would get in a teammate’s face and tell him to pull his head out of his ass and start playing better, and he was always effective when he did this, because he was respected so much by everyone on the team.”

Titus went on to say that for OSU to be successful, Buford or Sullinger would have to fill that intangibles void that Lighty left.

At this point in the season, no one has filled the void.

It’s easy to be a leader when everything is going smoothly.

When OSU beat Florida and Duke in a span of two weeks and rattled off eight consecutive wins to start the season, nobody needed to get in anyone’s face.

Even after the Kansas loss, it wasn’t time to panic because OSU’s best player, Sullinger, couldn’t play.

But in the middle of the Michigan game Saturday, with OSU trailing and Crisler Arena rocking, someone needed to huddle the squad up, get the guys focused, and like Titus said, pull heads out of asses.

Instead Matta was screaming at Buford.

Not all the blame should fall on Buford though. After him, Sullinger and Craft would be next in line to lead the team based on experience. But Sullinger at times appears too busy jawing at the refs and Craft doesn’t have the offensive prowess to legitimize being the intangible leader.

The Buckeyes have talent. They couldn’t have beaten Duke by 22 points and a total of five ranked opponents if they didn’t.

But now, after losing two of the last three games and sitting at an intersection that will determine their fate for the rest of the year, someone other than Matta needs to lead this team.

Once things start going downhill, it takes a powerful force to turn them around. Talent alone can’t do it. Intangibles can.

Do the Buckeyes have the intangibles to be a successful team?

I don’t think even they know. But if the team doesn’t figure it out quick, it’ll be another early exit for the Buckeyes come March.

 

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