Departing the beaches of south Florida last September I picked up a Lindy's College Basketball preview at the Ft. Myers airport to read on the plane ride home. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the prognosticators picked Ohio State as the number one team in the nation. In fact in the "National Picks" section, where the Buckeyes were pegged as the future national champion, the sub-line read, "Take Heart, Buck Backers: These Guys Are Gonna Give You a Title." Although most other basketball previews had OSU at number 3 or 4, the point is that the experts thought this year's team would be as good or better than last year's squad. So, as the season rounds the final turn it is easy to ask, "What went wrong?" Last year's team finished 34-3 (16-2 in the B1G) and was the number one seed in the NCAA tourney. This season's squad is 23-5 (11-4).
Well for starters it says a lot about Thad Matta's success that fans are disappointed with a 23-5 year. And I think it also points to the problem with preseason predictions which tend to get people thinking unrealistically. For instance, Lindy's magazine also had Vanderbilt at #4 (they are currently unranked), Pittsburgh ranked sixth (15-13 right now), and UCLA at 20th (currently 16-12). So, nobody knows what will happen when the ball is actually tossed into the air, and so many things change as a season unfolds. Still, after the great run in 2010-11, the lofty preseason expectations, and the early season beatdown of Duke, we expected so much more of this team. So what went wrong. Well, I can point to a number of factors:
Lack of an inside enforcer. I admit that I failed to truly appreciate Dallas Lauderdale. I called him "stone hands" and used to get frustrated at how often he had the ball slide between his big mitts. But he did two things this year's team really misses: 1) He provided an inside force defensively who could block shots when players were beat off the ball. This year, when someone bursts by a Buckeye defender they usually have an open lane to the hoop. Big D played some ferocious D and that is greatly missed; 2) He occupied space in the lane on offense, allowing Sully more freedom to roam. Dallas not only set screens but forced the opponent's big man to guard him or surrender uncontested dunks. That helped Sully more than we realized.
Buford's roller coaster season. A very young team needed its lone senior to not only provide leadership but to come up big in the critical games. For the most part, Buf has failed in both regards. Volumes have been written about this, so I won't belabor the point, but William's MO is to disappear for long stretches, and he seems to lack the confidence one would expect from a guy with his skills and experience. It is what it is at this point, but it sure would have been nice to see him become the All-American we anticipated. And this team needed him to rise to the occasion.
Sully's sometimes sullen attitude. A year ago, Jared Sullinger seemed to have more fun than anyone on the court, and his smile can light up an entire arena. But this year we have seen a lot more frowns and complaining to the zebras. I think part of that is the frustration of team's sagging around him and, at times, beating on him physically. But I also believe some of it is because of the lofty expectations that have been placed on Sully's shoulders. Regardless, he has played much more selfishly than a year ago, and that hasn't helped him or the team.
Thad's use of the bench, or lack there of. For once, the 2011-12 team is blessed with depth at every position, and Thad has had the chance to play 9-10 guys every night and wear opponents out. But he basically stuck to playing 6 or 7 as in the past. I think it has been a huge mistake. For instance, more of Amir Williams next to Jared Sullinger would have provided the enforcer the team lacked. More of Sam Thompson, would have provided the athletic wing needed due to Lighty's graduation. Throwing in LaQuinton Ross might have helped the anemic outside shooting. Add in Evan Ravenal, Shannon Scott and Jordan Sibert, and this team could have run people ragged and worn teams out, in my opinion. But Thad's lack of trust regarding his bench kept that from happening. Pity!
Of course it's not too late for this team to turn things around. But in truth, I will be surprised if they make it past the first weekend of NCAA play. Let's hope I'm wrong!