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February 10, 2014

Column: On the mend, but not out of the woods

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After a decisive and comprehensive win against Purdue, Lenzelle Smith Jr. couldn't help but smile.

After a dismal January that saw Ohio State nearly capsize, the Buckeyes have now won three-straight games.

After a pair of gutty and consequential road triumphs against Iowa and Wisconsin, Smith Jr. and company are starting to resemble the team that roared out to a 15-0 start in form and function.

In the sense of the latter, Ohio State's breathed life into a once-anemic offense and recommitted itself to a vexatious defense. In the sense of the former, the Buckeyes have reclaimed a certain poise and level of self-assurance that evaporated during a span where they went 1-5.

The nadir of that stretch was losing to Penn State for the first time in almost a decade. And losing at the Schottenstein Center -- a place where Ohio State rarely stumbles -- made it that much worse.

In the postgame press conference that followed, Smith Jr. shook and his voice quivered while he deplored his team's play on the court and priorities off of it.

"This game, this hurts the most out of every game since I've been at Ohio State," the senior guard said Jan. 29. "As a team, I don't think we care enough. These losses don't hurt enough."

As far as what's ostensible, the Buckeyes have, in some way, remedied what would appear to be a rather alarming problem. If losing, like Smith Jr. said, didn't hurt enough before, then a somewhat mortifying loss to the last-place Nittany Lions was enough to cross the pain threshold.

A loss to the Boilermakers probably would've felt similarly dire and perhaps more exasperating after seemingly unlikely triumphs in Madison and Iowa City. It would've been three steps back for two steps forward.

Instead, Ohio State (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) dismissed Purdue by 18 points, its largest margin of victory since walloping Nebraska on Jan. 4. Instead, the Buckeyes don't look like a team damned to watch its season spiral out of control. Instead, it gives coach Thad Matta's outfit hope. And as long as that happens, there won't be much lamenting from Smith Jr.

"We've been winning, simple as that," he said Saturday night. "When we win, I feel good. When we lose, I feel bad. We're playing for one another, we're lifting each other up.

"I think our maturity as a team has picked up a little bit. Ever since I had that interview and I was saying we were missing camaraderie and leadership, I think we found a lot of that stuff we were missing and it's great because this is the time when you want to be playing your best basketball."

So much so that Smith Jr. offered a prediction steeped in brazen assurance.

"We're gonna be a tough team to beat come March," he said.

Maybe he's right. If the Buckeyes keep shooting the ball around 50 percent and if junior forward LaQuinton Ross gives the Buckeyes 15-plus points a game and curbs a propensity to turn the ball over, then sure.

If Smith Jr. -- who scored 16 points and buried four 3-pointers against Purdue -- knocks down shots when Ohio State so desperately needs him, then yeah.

If they get a rotation of production from people like junior guard Shannon Scott, junior forward Sam Thompson and junior center Amir Williams, the Buckeyes have the talent, coaching and experience to stage a late-charge for the Big Ten championship and make noise in the NCAA tournament run.

But that's the thing with Smith Jr.'s prognosis: it's riddled with ifs.

And for a team as erratic as Ohio State playing in a league as unpredictable as the Big Ten, the margin for ways to atone for ifs and veil inherent defects gets smaller with each passing week.

"You like to feel good, you like to feel great," Matta said after beating Purdue, "but right now, jeez, one bad segment of a game could cost you the game with what we have left on our schedule in terms of who we're playing, when we're playing, where we're playing."

For the Buckeyes, that means a home tilt against No. 10 Michigan Tuesday, road trips to Illinois and Indiana and rematches against teams that beat them like Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan State. If Ohio State can overcome a miserable January, it doesn't mean it should forget about it.

"They're a good team and you're gonna go through some tough times in this league and they'll be there at the end," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "They'll be good in the NCAA tournament."

Ohio State's proven it can go toe-to-toe with its conference's elite. It's also still got to prove it can consistently quash the teams it's expected to beat.



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