Friday, January 24, 2014
Conference play means adjustments
By C.L. Brown
It seems like every team had to make some sort of adjustment in conference play.
No. 17 Ohio State and Illinois were in need of major overhauls after both entered Thursday’s meeting on four-game losing streaks.
No. 1 Arizona and No. 6 Florida had the luxury of needing only a few tweaks.
And then there were teams such as No. 15 Cincinnati and Colorado, which have had to adjust to the loss of injured players.
None breathed a sigh of relief quite like the Buckeyes did, though. Ohio State topped the Fighting Illini 62-55 and can, at least temporarily, change its season’s narrative. Its 15-0 start flipped to "What’s wrong in Columbus?" very quickly as losses piled up and offensive weaknesses were exposed.
There was nothing more symbolic of the Buckeyes' struggle through four games as one sequence early in the second half Thursday.
Amir Williams had a clear path to the rim and a sure dunk that he bounced off the back of the rim. Ohio State controlled the ball and Williams again found himself making his way to the basket when he got his shot altered and the Illini headed the other way.
The Buckeyes didn’t let their losing streak, nor their 29 percent shooting in the first half, create unnecessary pressure. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta figured out ways to get his two leading scorers open shots. Some of them came off Illinois’ 15 turnovers, but many others came in half-court sets.
LaQuinton Ross and Ohio State were able to find some offensive cohesion in the second half against Illinois, breaking a four-game losing streak.
Leading scorer LaQuinton Ross, who had only four points in the first half, pumped out 14 for the Buckeyes in the second. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who entered the game shooting 16 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play, went 4-of-8 from behind the arc and scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half.
Smith hit a huge 3-pointer with 1:25 left that gave Ohio State a 58-50 lead, and the Illini never got within one basket the rest of the way.
Just as the Buckeyes got a temporary reprieve from their struggles, it seems like trouble for Illinois is about to hit unfair levels. The Illini still have three games remaining in a five-game stretch that features four ranked opponents.
They left Columbus with many questions on how they can adjust, especially after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 17.4 points per game, was held scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting against Ohio State.
Arizona isn’t searching for much of anything after winning its 19th straight game. Wildcats coach Sean Miller is keeping his rotation tight, using only eight players against the Buffaloes. But eight was obviously enough for Arizona, which never trailed, as Nick Johnson led the Wildcats with 18 points.
The way Arizona is playing, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Spencer Dinwiddie would have made much of a difference.
Dinwiddie was Colorado’s leading scorer before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 12 in a loss at Washington. Wing Tre'Shaun Fletcher was hurt in the same game, but he's expected to return. Since then, the Buffaloes have been trying to find a viable third scoring threat to help replace Dinwiddie's 14.7 points per game.
It’s unfair to expect too much from freshman Jaron Hopkins, who replaced Dinwiddie in the lineup. He finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Both Josh Scott and Askia Booker have been consistent double-figure scorers, and they contributed 13 and 11 points, respectively, against the Wildcats. But it was sophomore forward Xavier Johnson who had the kind of breakout performance that could signal readiness for a bigger role.
Johnson scored a game-high 21 points -- just one shy of his career high -- included 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. It was the only game this season in which he logged more than 10 field goal attempts.
No. 15 Cincinnati has had its share of attrition this season with freshman center Jamaree Strickland being declared ineligible, guard Jeremiah Davis III transferring to Ball State and forward Jermaine Lawrence suffering from turf toe that has kept him sidelined the past three games.
But the Bearcats continue to move forward and lead the American Athletic Conference after their 69-51 win over UCF. Sean Kilpatrick led the way with 19 points, but it is their defense -- one that held UCF to just 26 percent from 3-point range -- that keys their victories.
Arguably no ranked team has had to make as many adjustments as Florida this season, with injuries and suspensions forcing coach Billy Donovan to juggle his lineups. The Gators have proven to be a resilient group, as Alabama can attest.
On a night when the Gators shot only 37 percent, they still made 10 3-pointers. Michael Frazier II made five of his attempts beyond the arc for a game-high 18 points as Florida beat the Crimson Tide 68-62 for their third SEC road win.