Last week, the wheels were falling off of Ohio State's basketball season, and it took the entire pit crew to put them back on.
The Buckeyes held a players-only meeting after last week's home loss to Penn State, trying to determine why a team once ranked in the nation's top five had suffered five losses in six games.
For fans, the most tangible result of the proceedings was a lineup change. Junior Sam Thompson joined the starting five, with classmate Shannon Scott assuming a place on the bench.
What followed was a pair of tough road wins at Wisconsin and Iowa.
If we're to infer a cause-and-effect relationship between the rotation switch and winning, then Buckeye coach Thad Matta directly gave credit for the two victories to Scott. Matta told the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Ari Wasserman, “It is funny, because Shannon came to me and said, ‘Hey coach, I wouldn’t mind coming off the bench.’ That kind of tells you what kind of kid he is.”
With the renewed excitement from victories on two ranked opponents' home courts, are the Buckeyes ready to resume a path toward NCAA tournament glory?
Finding the Right Mix
Scott's return to the bench-pest role he inhabited last season agreed with him. He helped harass Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson into a 2-of-9 shooting night while recording his own best shooting percentage (4-of-10, 40 percent) in six games.
Against Iowa, Scott was even better. His 11-point effort marked his first double-figure game since the Jan. 4 blowout win over Nebraska. On the defensive end, he ripped two steals and did it without fouling, the first time this season he's gone a whole game without committing a violation.
Matta said to the Columbus Dispatch's Bob Baptist that Scott's rationale for requesting the lineup change was “he wanted to get Sam going a little bit.” That hasn't quite happened yet, but Thompson's nine points and two three-point baskets against Iowa do represent his best game since OSU's four-game losing streak ended.
Against Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin, he combined for a mere six points on 2-of-9 shooting. Iowa became the first team since Morgan State all the way back in the season opener to surrender two triples to the man called "Slam."
What the 6'7" Thompson brings back to the starting five is the greater length that OSU needs to compete against versatile players like Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, both of whom tower over the 6'1" Scott. Those two were held to a combined 6-of-17 from the floor. Marble hung 22 points on the Buckeyes in the teams' first meeting in Columbus.
Scott and Craft, who stands only 6'2" himself, are among America's most tenacious defensive backcourts, but they're at a physical disadvantage against teams with bigger guards. Build-wise, they're a more athletic version of Indiana's Yogi Ferrell-Jordan Hulls backcourt from last season.
Thankfully, there aren't many truly big guards left on Ohio State's schedule. Michigan's Nik Stauskas (6'6") and Northwestern's JerShon Cobb (6'5") are the only guards taller than 6'4" the Buckeyes will face before the Big Ten tournament begins in March.
Scaring Up Wins
More time for Thompson also provides a psychological benefit for Ohio State, namely the fear that Thompson stirs in opposing defenses—the fear of being posterized. Slam's YouTube-worthy dunks will live forever in fans' memories, but they're currently front of mind for opposing coaches.
One of the biggest plays in the Iowa game was an alley-oop off an inbounds pass from Aaron Craft to Amir Williams. Craft told Baptist, “When you’ve got a (leaper) like Sam, everybody kind of focuses on him.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery admitted as much: "We thought they would run a back-pick for Thompson. They ran a back-pick for Williams, and we chased it, so that was unfortunate.”
While Thompson concerns opposing defenses, Scott can have the same effect on offenses when he hits the scorer's table. Guards who've already spent several minutes chasing Lenzelle Smith on offense or being hounded by Craft won't get any relief from the always pesky Scott.
Smith and Scott preyed on Iowa's battle-worn legs in the second half of Tuesday's game, scoring 22 of their combined 23 points after the break. In particular, Scott's increased aggression was noticeable:
If Shannon Scott attacked like this all the time, offense would at least be functional.— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) February 5, 2014
Scott is in the spotlight thanks to the lineup change. Matta said in the above Plain Dealer article, "I said to him, ‘The only reason I wouldn’t do that (change the lineup) is because I didn’t want people to think that it’s your fault we’re in this position.’"
How Scott continues to produce will be a major storyline for the remainder of OSU's season. The more relaxed, confident and aggressive he stays going forward could make him the Buckeyes' most important player during February and March.
Perhaps making himself a focus will influence Scott's decision-making and shot selection. Since the four-game losing streak ended, he's reined in his tendency to settle for long jumpers:
|Dates||2P FGM-A||2P FG%||3P FGM-A||3P FG%||eFG%|
|Dec. 21-Jan. 20 (8 gms)||13-22||.591||8-28||.286||.340|
|Jan. 23-Feb. 4 (4 gms)||11-24||.458||1-6||.167||.383|
While the Buckeyes are certainly in need of three-point shooting threats, Scott and his career 25.7-percent stroke likely won't provide one this season.
Ohio State needed a jolt, something to shake it out of the inevitable doldrums that are both heralded and exacerbated by five losses in six games.
“We know we're not an NCAA team right now, a tournament team,” Scott told the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises in an interview before the Wisconsin game. “I think we're kind of spoiled by the teams we've been on in the past."
Early results are promising. The Buckeyes who rallied after trailing most of the game against Wisconsin and hung on in the face of an Iowa comeback bore only slight resemblance to the bunch that frittered away an 11-point lead against Penn State.
"I think we've finally found our groove," Williams said after the Iowa win (AP recap via Ohio State Athletics). "We're playing together, and I think once we continue to play together as a team we're one of the best teams in the Big Ten."
A Big Ten championship may now be an impossible dream, but this is no longer a team that appears to be spiraling toward the NIT. Crediting one lineup change is a simplistic way to go about it, but this is a milestone moment. The effects of this change will be closely analyzed the rest of this season.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.