Happy game day, all! As part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Syracuse Orange take on the Ohio State Buckeyes tonight from Value City Arena. This will be the first meeting between the two basketball programs since the 2012 Elite 8 where there were more fouls called in that contest than years Jim Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse.
With the matchup in hand, we brought on Matt Tamanini from Land-Grant Holy Land (say that five times fast) to preview the game.
James Szuba: First things first. Mark Titus is an Ohio State legend. Fact or fiction?
Matt Tamanini: Oh, if there was a way to answer this that was more than just “fact,” I would go with that. He was a legend when he was still occupying the last seat on Thad Matta’s bench, and his icon status has only grown since. I mean, he’d be a bigger deal if he actually ever contributed on the court, but in terms of walk-ons who never really played, definitely a legend.
JS: Should this game between Ohio State and Syracuse really just be called the Darius Bazley Classic?
MT: Who? I am unaware of anyone by that name. In all seriousness, I hope that things work out for him. I don’t know much of anything that’s gone on in his life, but from the outside, it just feels like he’s gotten a ton of bad advice at almost every turn. I hope that he is able to make the most of this year off and find his way into the league, since he is a very capable kid, but sitting out and not playing anywhere (college, G-League, overseas) just seems like he’s listening to folks that don’t have a great grip on what would be best for his future.
JS: So I followed the return to St. John Arena somewhat closely. How was that received amongst the fan base?
MT: I think that if you polled the Ohio State fan base that you would get about an equal percentage of fans that want to play every game at St. John as wants to continue the current football winning streak against Michigan in perpetuity. St. John is an absolute barn, but the way that it’s constructed — with everyone on top of each other — adds to the noise and intensity of the experience there. The place is ridiculously hot, and would need massive renovations if they ever decided to play there regularly. But, I think it is a great idea for them to play a game or two there every season, and I love the idea of doing it the night before the Michigan football game as well.
JS: Ohio State came in at No. 1 in the new NET ratings. How did that happen?
MT: Your guess is as good as mine. When I saw that on Monday, first I had to remind myself what the heck the NET rankings were, and then I had to figure out what their methodology was. But, when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Ohio State has had two pretty impressive road wins in the early season, beating both Cincinnati and Creighton away from home. Since the NET ratings start from scratch at the beginning of the year, and only focus on what has already happened in games played, rather than projections, I can understand it. Now, no one in Buckeye land actually thinks that OSU is the No. 1 team in the country, and I think almost everyone is thrilled with their No. 16 rank in the AP poll. This was very much supposed to be a transition year between the end of Thad Matta’s recruits and the beginning of Chris Holtmann’s recruits, and it very well still might be. But, I think I can speak for all OSU fans that we have been pleasantly surprised by how good the team has looked thus far.
JS: The Buckeyes opened the season with a big road win against Cincinnati. How good was it to get that game back on the schedule and what happened to spoil the first game in newly renovated Fifth Third Arena?
MT: It’s pretty ridiculous that it took almost 100 years for those teams to play a regular season game, isn’t it? I personally loved that UC was on the Buckeyes’ schedule to open the season — and will do so in Columbus next fall — for a lot of reasons. First, because if you look at a map of Ohio there are two small pockets in the state that aren’t completely Buckeye-obsessed. To a smaller degree, you have the northwest corner where Toledo is fairly well split between OSU fans and Michigan fans. But when you go down to the southwest corner, Cincinnati has a fairly violent anti-Ohio State streak. It is likely borne from being so over shadowed by the big behemoth in the state. So, I think it is great that Ohio State has finally decided to put recruiting concerns aside and get the Bearcats on the schedule, which brings me to the other reason this bit of scheduling made me happy.
Ever since Chris Holtmann steped on campus last June, it seems like every single decision he has made — both on and off the court — has been perfect. The first thing that he did was embrace the former players of all eras, he’s integrated himself to the university community at large, he has welcomed students into the program in ways that have never been done with the basketball program before, and he has taken some cues from the football program on how to embrace the Ohio State traditions. This is yet another example of making decisions that are not only good for the program, but good for the fans.
In terms of how they won? Defense. Holtmann has preached fundamentals from Day One, and that was evident against UC. Expectations weren’t very high for this season — although, we expected the team to be a lot of fun — but when we saw the way that the team clamped down in Cincinnati (even though we understood that they had lost a lot of firepower as well), it was really exciting and encouraging.
JS: How vital is CJ Jackson to OSU?
MT: He is incredibly vital to this team, but it’s funny, because if you would have asked this question before the season started, I would have had a much different answer as to why. At the beginning of the season, I thought that OSU would be relying on him to be the leading scorer outside of the paint. I obviously thought that as the only returning senior of note, that his leadership would be extremely important, and it has, but I thought that the Buckeyes would live and die on his ability to knock down shots, and surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case this year. Yes, he has had moments when he has done that, but he’s also had very long, multi-game stretches where he’s struggled to score at all.
Coming into the year, I would have thought that would spell disaster for the Buckeyes in those games, but, because they have found immediate contributions from three new comers, they’ve been able to compensate when Jackson has been off.
However, even when he is not shooting well, he has been irreplaceable in terms of leadership, and having a senior on the court with a pretty young and inexperienced team has really smoothed out a lot of the bumps that I thought we’d see early in the season.
JS: Kaleb Wesson is a load down low. How much of a problem can he be for Syracuse? Will he be mitigated by the 2-3 zone?
MT: It really depends. Kaleb is an incredibly talented big man, and has a surprisingly good stroke from outside; however, much to my surprise, OSU has played really well without him on the floor. The younger of the two Wesson brothers on the team is a post player built for the Big Ten of five to 10 years ago. He is a Jared Sullener, below-the-rim type of big. He is very skilled around the basket, and can make shots in a variety of ways. However, he can become a liability on defense, if he is forced to guard a stretch-3 masquerading as a 5.
Therefore, Holtmann has been going small a lot this season — much more than I thought he would — and not just because Kaleb is in foul trouble. So, I would say that the zone will likely provide some trouble for him, but the offense isn’t nearly as reliant on the big man as I expected it to be.
JS: How has fifth-year Wake Forest transfer Keyshawn Woods transitioned?
MT: Really well. I kind of thought that he would be starting alongside C.J. Jackson in the back court, but it looks like Holtmann prefers to keep them mostly opposite of each other in the rotation -- at least in the early going -- ensuring that there is always a veteran ball-handler on the floor. He has proven that he can be an important contributor, whether he is scoring or not, and he and Jackson have kind of alternated the scoring responsibilities in the first six games.
JS: OSU brought in a solid freshman class. What do each of the young guys bring to the table?
MT: Let’s start with Luther Muhammad, since, well, he’s a starter. He is the highest-rated player in the class, and it’s been pretty evident why early. He is tied with fellow freshman Duane Washington Jr. for third on the team with 9.5 points per game, but it has really been his defensive effort that has endeared him to Buckeye fans. Washington on the other hand has been the best outside-shooter on the team, hitting 48 percent of his three-point attempts.
Jaedon Ledee and Justin Ahrens haven’t played as much as the other two freshmen, but Ledee has been getting some increased action as of late, and is actually second on the team in rebounds per game.
JS: Now hypothetically if an unnamed writer from Nunes Magician were making his way to Columbus for this game and had less than 24 hours in town, how would you recommend he spend it?
MT: If you… I mean an unnamed writer is going to be there for just 24 hours, I would obviously recommend at least driving past Ohio Stadium if you haven’t seen it before, but besides that, probably the best suggestions I can make are going to be food related.
- On/Around Campus
- Downtown Columbus
JS: Who wins, what’s the final score and why?
MT: I’m going to give the Buckeyes the edge in this one, simply because they are at home, and it’s still early in the season for both. If Washington, Jackson, and Woods are able to shoot over and extend the zone for Kaleb Wesson, the Buckeyes should be able to score. Both teams are pretty young, so if either team can force some turnovers, I could see that being a big difference too. So, I will go OSU 76, Syracuse 71.
JS: Anything else Syracuse fans should know?
MT: Just that Chris Holtmann is probably the most universally beloved figure at Ohio State right now, so be kind to him, please.
I’ll be at the game tonight and will have live updates/stories from Value City Arena, so for those who aren’t already follow along with me on twitter @JamesSzuba.