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Q&A with SBN Ohio State blog Around the Oval

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Muchas gracias (hey, we're playing in San Antonio, okay?) to Sean from SB Nation's Ohio State blog Around the Oval, who has graciously taken the time to answer some of our questions about tonight's match up between Tennessee and Ohio State.

RTT: Ohio State has lost only three games this season, and all three of those losses were to stellar teams. Is the team as good as their record indicates?

Around the Oval: I'm honestly not sure. On the one hand, the team doesn't blow out inferior teams like you'd expect a great team to do (see the Xavier game, both Penn State games, and others). But on the other hand, they've always done enough to beat those inferior teams. They haven't always been impressive in victory, but they've been victorious in every game since January 9th - a claim few, if any, teams can make - and that's pretty good.

I compare them to the national champion OSU football team of the 2002 season (but then, I compare everything to the 2002 team, so you may want to take this with a grain of salt). From the outside, it must seem pretty apparent that, despite all the talent, the team is winning with smoke and mirrors and sooner or later playing teams close is going to come back and bite them. Meanwhile, as the talking heads on ESPN are lamenting OSU's lack of offense, Buckeye fans are saying, "But they keep winning! Nobody's beaten them in their last nineteen games! How are you not mentioning this?" Both sides have a point. If the Buckeyes keep letting teams hang around when they could be putting them away, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Buckeyes lose. But on the other hand, the team hasn't lost in a long time, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that streak continue.

RTT: There is tremendous buzz about Greg Oden. While his stats are very strong (15 points and almost 10 boards per game), you'd think he'd have even better numbers considering all of the hype he's been getting. There must be something else that he brings to the table. What is it?

Around the Oval: It's been his defense. You hear a lot about his impact on defense, about all the shots he alters. It's true. If Oden's under the basket, opponents give up on layups and the low post almost entirely. There's nothing like seeing an opposing point guard forget Oden's there and drive to the basket, only to look up and see a seven foot, 280-pound man staring down at him. Said point guard then either meekly dribbles back to the three point line, or puts up a weak layup that generally gets swatted to the three-point line. He can be contained defensively if pulled away from the basket, but his impact on defense is much greater than his impact on offense, and it goes well beyond statistics.

RTT: I'm sure that all of OSU's opponents have made jokes about how old Oden looks. What's the best one you've heard? And exactly how old is he, anyway?

Around the Oval: I actually haven't heard too much that's all that impressive. Most are just "Hey Oden, shouldn't you be retiring soon?" or simple stuff along those lines. There were two that I kind of liked. One involved how Oden's teammates liked going to the movies with him, because he got the senior citizens' discount on concessions. The other came during a contest to come up with a nickname for Oden at Buckeye Commentary. One person suggested "Wise LeBron." With some gray hair and a receding hairline, the resemblance would be uncanny. But overall, a pretty weak crop. Lots of room for improvement, should the readers of RTT desire to do better.

Oh, and Oden is 19. His birthday is January 22, if you want to send him a card.

RTT: Xavier almost knocked the Buckeyes out of the Tournament last week. Off game? Mental lapse? Or was Xavier the first to find a weakness in the team and exploit it?

Around the Oval: It was a combination of all three. It was an off game for much of the team, as Oden, Mike Conley, and Ron Lewis were the only players that really played well. For example, Ivan Harris and Othello Hunter, the two guys that get the minutes at power forward, combined for a whopping zero points. And when you add in the fact that Conley didn't really get going until overtime, it's easy to see why the Buckeyes needed a shot as time expired to force overtime.

Xavier also found a weakness of sorts, in that they pulled Oden away from the basket. He frequently had to guard Xavier's forwards out at the three point line, since even their big guys could make threes. This neutralized OSU's biggest strength on defense: Oden under the basket preventing easy points inside. Oden's not nearly as good a defender away from the basket, and Xavier took advantage of that.

The mental lapse is Thad Matta's, and it's tied to the above point. Time and time again, Oden was drawn away from the basket, yet Matta refused to even try a 2-3 zone. I realize that conventional wisdom holds that the 2-3 zone is dangerous against a team that can make threes, but man defense wasn't working, so a change would have been worth a shot. Matta stuck to his guns, and I think that helped keep the game closer than it might have been.

RTT: What about Oden's foul at the end of regulation against Xavier? Did most Ohio State fans consider it flagrant? Should he even be playing this weekend? And what about those that are saying that as good as Oden is, OSU might actually play better without him? Is it true, and, if so, why?

Around the Oval: That's kind of tough to gauge. I think most fans think it was flagrant, or at least borderline. There are plenty, though, that don't think it was excessive and that Justin Cage flopped to make it look worse than it was (a view Bruce Pearl himself expressed on Pardon The Interruption. I don't think most Buckeye fans think it was done with malicious intent. Almost any time a 280-pound man makes contact with a 225-pound man, it's going to look pretty rough, and Oden might have been getting pretty frustrated with the officiating (another view held by some OSU fans is that the refs owed it to Oden to not call it a flagrant foul after repeatedly ignoring people holding, shoving, and otherwise beating him up).

As far as the Buckeyes playing better without Oden, I think some players might perform better without him, but that doesn't make them a better team. Without Oden, the Buckeyes know they don't have the dominant post presence to lean on, so some of the players claim they elevate their game to compensate for that. The team might also play a faster, more attractive style of basketball when they don't have to pound the ball into the low post. But I don't think a team gets better losing Oden's contribution to the offense and, especially, to the defense and on the glass.

Brief Scouting Report

Mike Conley Jr. - Fr. G - He's very quick, very good at driving to the rim, and an excellent passer (6.2 apg, 2.8 A/TO ratio). As far as weaknesses, he's not much of a three-point threat (30.6%) and not a very good free throw shooter (67.5%).

Jamar Butler - Jr. G - Butler is a very good three point shooter (39.3%), the best free throw shooter on the team (83.7%), and essentially a second point guard on the floor (3.7 apg). He's not much of a threat to score inside.

Ron Lewis - Sr. G - His numbers are decent (12.1 ppg on 42.6% shooting, including 36% on his threes), but he's really elevated his game in the postseason. His shot selection is much improved, he's driving to the basket more frequently, and something like 45% of his threes are falling. He may be the biggest scoring threat on the team, Oden and Conley included.

Ivan Harris - Sr. F - He's more of a small forward than a power forward, as evidenced by his stats: 38.2% 3pt%, but just 3.2 rpg. He can do an okay job defending in the post, but he's much more comfortable away from the basket (i.e., if he's guarding Duke "I've never shot a three" Crews while Oden's defending Chism on the perimeter, consider this a good sign for the Vols).

Greg Oden - Fr. C - You probably know all you need to know about Greg Oden. He's big, tall, and an excellent interior defender. Now that his right wrist is more or less healed, he's adding to his offensive repertoire and is becoming more of a scoring threat.

Great stuff, Sean. Thanks for stopping by!