Bottom line? Buckeyes don't have the goods
Even as we move from the Technicolor world of our parents and grandparents to a high-speed and high-definition landscape, where the television you trampled someone to claim on sale after Thanksgiving is already out of date by New Year's Day, our collective mind-set appears increasingly black and white.APToo often, Jessica Davenport's OSU teammates are allowing their star to be effectively taken out of the game by double-teams instead of finding new ways to get her involved.
We need bullet points and sound bites, the world explained in easy-to-digest nuggets of information. And if you can swap out some of the words for nifty graphics, it's all the better. It's a world in which the entire spectrum of political debate gets boiled down to the point that you're either a CNN or a Fox News person. Make your point quickly and loudly because there's a laptop waiting to surf, a cell phone waiting to ring or an iPod waiting to rock if you don't.
Ohio State isn't good enough to win the national title. The Buckeyes are not even good enough to get to the Final Four in Boston.
How's that for black and white?
As fourth-ranked Ohio State prepares to host Thursday's showdown with No. 3 LSU (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) in a battle of two unbeaten teams, the term "potential Final Four preview" could get more play in print and on air than just about anything else that doesn't involve Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie.
After all, the Buckeyes went 30-5 last season, sharing the Big Ten regular-season title before eventually losing to Rutgers in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. This year, they are undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation. They haven't allowed an opponent to score as many as 60 points, and for their part, they rank among the nation's leaders in field-goal percentage. Not to mention they have Jessica Davenport, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and clearly the best center in the country.
It's an imposing résumé.
But in recent wins against Boston College and USC, two programs nowhere near as strong as they have been in recent seasons, the Buckeyes revealed the kind of flaws that ought to keep the Columbus faithful from scouting out restaurants around Faneuil Hall.
It's difficult to miss Davenport, the 6-foot-5 junior who set a school record in blocks while averaging a team-high 19.3 points last season. She towers over teammates, opponents and even most mascots. And that's exactly why it's mystifying that she essentially vanished for long stretches of the games against the Eagles and Trojans, two teams with frontcourts that are hardly imposing.
Both opponents focused on forcing Davenport away from the hoop, or at worst, swarming her and using the baseline as an extra defender if she did get the ball in a more comfortable position on the block. It's hardly a revolutionary strategy for countering a dominant post player; the peach basket had no sooner been nailed to the pole than coaches were telling defenders to make post players beat them from 15 feet. But in both games, the Buckeyes responded to this challenge to their literal and figurative center by not responding at all.
They allowed their star to be effectively taken out of the game, content to seek offense from other spots instead of finding new ways to get Davenport involved. As a result, Davenport, who shot nearly 59 percent from the floor last season, hit just 4 of 9 shots against Boston College and 4 of 11 shots against USC.
It's at this point that you notice two things: Caity Matter is gone, and Brandie Hoskins leads the team in assists.
Matter's star dimmed ever so slightly during her senior season, eclipsed by the supernova that is Davenport. But the Ohio native, who finished her college career as the school's most prolific 3-point shooter, is still missed. Matter hit better than two 3-pointers a game last season, shooting a robust 44.5 percent from behind the arc and forcing defenses to respect both her reputation and her results. And though Marscilla Packer almost single-handedly rescued the Buckeyes against Boston College on Dec. 3, hitting five 3-pointers on her way to 18 points, she's still relatively unproven as a sophomore, after averaging just less than nine minutes a game last season.
Without the fear of proven perimeter retribution -- other than Packer, no Ohio State player has hit more than four 3-pointers this season -- smaller teams such as the Eagles and Trojans were able to limit Davenport by using quickness to converge on and harass her. And that spells trouble for Ohio State against teams that not only have quickness on defense but also have the size (read: Sylvia Fowles or Nicky Anosike) to battle Davenport without as many double- and triple-teams.
A gifted scorer, Hoskins might be the only Ohio State player consistently able to create her own shot. Whether driving to the basket or getting space for midrange shots, the 5-9 junior can resemble a scaled-down version of Sheryl Swoopes, at times.
But for all those gifts, she's not a natural point guard. She leads the Buckeyes in assists, as she did last season, at better than four per game and has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio. But asking her to run the offense means asking her to get looks for Davenport in the post, create good scoring opportunities for the team's weaker offensive options and bail everyone out with her own offense when necessary.
And that's not something many players not named Swoopes or Taurasi have been able to accomplish against the best of the best in women's college basketball.
Teammate Kim Wilburn is a tenacious defender, but she's a point guard in height only, meaning the pressure on Hoskins isn't likely to fade unless Ashley Allen, who already has suffered two season-ending injuries in her time at Ohio State, is able to overcome early foot problems and offer consistent minutes.
And though role players like Packer, Cincinnati transfer Debbie Merrill, Tia Battle and Tamarah Riley are useful parts who play their roles well, they offer little potential for addressing the fundamental flaws of a team that at times seems to be playing alongside its best player instead of with her.
If this seems like a bleak picture, it's only so in relation to the talent available this season at places like Tennessee, North Carolina, Duke, LSU, Baylor and Rutgers.
With Michigan State missing departed seniors Kristin Haynie and Kelli Roehrig, and Minnesota and Purdue stuck as close to the bubble as to the top of the polls, Ohio State should win the Big Ten. More than likely, the Buckeyes will win the conference in impressive fashion and finish the season in contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of what happens against LSU on Thursday.
Ohio State is an extremely good basketball team that should enjoy a very successful season. But in a world where success is absolute and you're either a contender or you're not, the Buckeyes are not.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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