The Buckeyes, without key pieces like Jared Sullinger and William Buford, traveled to Duke and had the impressive Blue Devils on the ropes for more than 25 minutes before eventually falling 73-68 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I'll let you decide whether you think OSU belongs in the top five after losing to Duke, but here are some observations from the Buckeyes' most recent win:
• Deshaun Thomas is the man, 16 isn't enough – Hate it or love it, this team is going to live and die by Thomas until it can identify another scorer. Doing that, too, seems like it is going to be quite the battle moving forward (we'll talk about that more later) because nobody has stepped up to assert themselves as someone that can be reliable from game-to-game. Though the junior led all Buckeyes with 16 points, it isn't enough for a team still identifying ways to score the basketball. You hate to ask for more from Thomas, but it is hard to think this game wouldn't be different if he didn't pick up his second foul. Looked like he was just getting going before eating bench for the final 10 minutes of the first half.
• LaQuinton Ross looked ready – Ross looked a lot more ready to play in his first real test in college basketball than I anticipated. He had a stretch where he made a bucket, forced a turnover with tough defense on the other end and then spotted up and knocked down a three all in less than a minute's time. It's always a big sign when a guy can come in with no experience and show now ill-effects from the situation he's in. Despite all the positive signs, he only played for 11 minutes.
And that's because he isn't where he needs to be on the defensive end, and Matta has struggled his entire career with replacing guys that play better defense for other options, even if those other options aren't offensive threats. You see that with Thompson, he is better on defense, but provides little-to-no boost on offense aside from the occasional dunk. Matta admitted after the game that he wishes he had gone with Ross early in the second half, but didn't. What would you rather have – offense and no defense or vice versa? Matta, predictably, chose to stay with the defense.
• Shannon Scott has come a long way – More so than anyone else on this roster, Scott has made a transformation worth praising. No longer is he the timid freshman afraid of the moment. Instead, he is a lightening-fast sophomore that can move the ball up the floor in an instant and take big shots without hesitating. In 20 minutes of action, he had two steals and three assists. One play sticks out to me the most where he grabbed the rebound off a Duke missed, pushed the ball quicker than anyone on the floor cared to keep up with and found Thomas for the easy three. It's clear he's in Ohio State's plans this year, but he's shaping out to be something special.
• What is it with Lenzelle Smith Jr.? – One nine 20 points, the next he has eight. It's a shame because this team – as they proved against Duke – is in dire need of a secondary and third consistent scoring option. The Buckeyes will win games in when Smith is scoring in the high teens, but that's simply not something that can be relied upon at this point. He showed the assertiveness against the Devils, taking 12 shots, but he only buried four of them. As the season progresses he should get better, but if he could score 15 every night (not average, but legitimately score) this team is a lot more dangerous.
• Amir Williams, flashes of good and bad – The second I said I thought Williams had weak hands in the first half, he turned it on big time and led a charge off the offensive glass that will win Ohio State a lot of games this year. He had seven offensive rebounds in the first half and really played harder than I ever remembered, including last year's Elite Eight appearance. However, as is the story with the rest of the team, that level of play wasn't consistent and it sometimes was replaced by instances where he looked rather overmatched going for the basketball. I think the biggest thing separating Williams from being that next proven big guy is strength, energy and assertiveness on the floor. I don't know the process of attaining those things consistently, but glimpses won't be enough for this team. They need the whole package.
• Aaron Craft had a rough shooting night – Judging by his demeanor after the game, Craft knew his rough night shooting was one of the reasons his team lost. And the bottom line is simple – this isn't last year's time. When Craft and Smith both shoot poorly, the Buckeyes are going to have a hard time winning. While the Devils concentrated on doubling Thomas, Craft had his looks. And multiple times in the final 10 minutes of the game, he simply wasn't able to convert. This year's team, however, doesn't look at Craft's scoring as a bonus. Again, the Buckeyes need it.
• Give this team credit for weathering the storm – The most impressive thing from this game was that OSU went from looking overmatched and intimidated in the first three minutes of the game to a squad that extended its lead over the final 10 minutes of the first half with Thomas on the bench. Despite the loss, OSU wasn't intimidated by a very good Duke game in the loudest arena I've ever been in. This is a youthful team, but a confident one.
• Earned its ranking? – It sometimes takes a game like this to identify how good a team is, and despite the fact the team lost, I think it is clear that OSU has the tools to be a successful tournament team this year. Whether all those things come together is another topic, but if the Buckeyes can identify other scoring threats, play consistent defense and rebound as hard as they did in the first half, they're going to be tough to beat. Duke has already topped three top-five teams in six games and the Buckeyes were right there with the Devils the entire way. Losing is a negative, but OSU proving it belongs could be big moving forward.