Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. A lot of famous folks have uttered those words, or some close approximation thereof. I remember Barack Obama uttered something like that during the campaign. Dollars to donuts ole Abe Lincoln uttered them too. In fact, I’d wager right here and right now — I would throw bills on your doorstep, amigo — that every single American president has uttered those words at some point. All of them except Taft. William Howard Taft didn’t have time for philosophical utterings; the man was an eatin’ fool.
And if it’s true in politics, it’s true in life, and we’d do well to heed the advice in the aftermath of Ohio State’s bludgeoning of the Duke Blue Devils. If you and I were prone to making extreme pronouncements, we might seat ourselves at an outdoor cafe, loosen our suspenders, and issue the following edicts:
- Duke is an abomination and should be relegated to Division II.
- Ohio State is the best team in the land, and should play LSU in the BCS championship.
- Aaron Craft, known as “The Crafty Craftsman” in Buckeye circles, is our generation’s answer to Oscar Robertson.
- Any team with two half-decent perimeter defenders will shut down Duke’s Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, neutering the entire offense and freeing up Austin Rivers for his latest NBA tryout while the rest of the team stands around and loses by 20.
- Miles Plumlee tried to take a charge against a bounce pass.
That last one is actually true. Some people think I’m too hard on the Plumlees, and in a second, I’ll say something nice. Meanwhile, though, I swear to you that Miles Plumlee tried to take a charge on a bounce pass. It happened in the second half, with Craft driving left on a break. Miles was already beat, but might have used his height to block a layup if Craft chose to shoot. Instead, he froze in place, hands covering his nether-areas in that timeless drawing-a-charge pose. As I mentioned, Craft had him beat, and was not on a collision course. Nor did Miles attempt to anticipate a pass to Jared Sullinger on the right. He just planted his solid Indiana body between them, and when Craft’s pass came, it hit his leg, bounced back to Craft, and became another Ohio State layup. And dudes, the only conclusion I can reckon from that sequence, knowing what I know, is that Miles was trying to draw a charge on the basketball itself.
Which, considering the officiating of Ted Valentine and his crew up to that point, wasn’t such a terrible idea. But we’ll get there.
Back to the polarizing statements above — none of them are absolute facts. Here’s what I think is true about last night.
- The Buckeyes played an exceptional game in front of a crowd of rowdies, and are, by any fair measure, a better team than Duke. Ohio State is not necessarily as good as they played, however, and Duke is certainly not as bad. For instance, the Buckeyes’ offensive efficiency was 130.8, meaning they would have scored 130.8 points if given 100 possessions. That’s their best total of the season, but I can guarantee you that Duke is not the worst defense they’ve faced. In fact, Duke might be the best. But Ohio State couldn’t miss, and that happens sometimes. Exactly one player on the entire Buckeye roster shot less than 50 percent for the night, and that player was a substitute grunt named Evan Ravenel, who played 13 minutes and finished 0-for-2 from the floor.
- Aaron Craft is honestly one of the best players in the country, and I would argue that he’s also the best player on his team. This is nothing new. In a season preview earlier this year, I wrote: “Craft’s minutes gradually increased as last season progressed, and his tempo-free metrics were superb. His 53.5 effective field goal percentage and 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio were particularly impressive. With Sullinger on his side, Craft could become a star.” Well, he’s just about there. And along with the offensive numbers, he also plays excellent defense. He took Curry out of the Duke offensive equation in the first half, and Mike Krzyzewski barely played his junior point guard in the second half. Without production from Curry, Duke’s offense folded in on itself.
- Duke’s perimeter defense was unbelievably poor, but it probably had at least a little bit to do with fatigue. The shooting percentage from Ohio State was partly down to good fortune, and partly down to Duke’s inability to fight through screens, creating a lot of open mid-range looks. Typically, that aspect of the game is a strength for Coach K-led teams, and though Ohio State ran an efficient offensive set and wore Duke down, it has to be seen as something of an anomaly.
- If you’re a Duke fan with bad memories, Austin Rivers’ showcase was less fun than it may have appeared to a neutral observer. It recalled nothing so much as Kyrie Irving’s excellence in a heartbreaking loss to Arizona last season. Lots of breathtaking moves, lots of points, and lots of blue-uniformed university kids standing around staring at their palms. This kind of thing doesn’t work in college basketball. It just doesn’t. And I’m not saying it’s Rivers’ fault, because that would be wrong. But it’s not viable, and it’s not fun.
- Ted Valentine, the referee, took Duke out of the game early. I realize that many people reading that sentiment will now guffaw in anger, retreat to their chosen Internet diatribe cave, and say, “He blamed the referees for the loss!” In fact, those people have already left the site, so this next clause will never reach their waxy ears: Duke would have lost this game on its own merits. But through a series of staggeringly poor calls, including a phantom second foul on Mason Plumlee that destroyed the first and last surge of momentum Duke managed to build, Valentine ensured the blowout. Sullinger in particular was the beneficiary of several “star calls.” This, too, happens.
- Mason Plumlee effectively played Sullinger to a draw. He scored 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, most of them directly on Sullinger, and grabbed eight boards. Sullinger scored 21 on 8-of-14, and had eight boards of his own. And, to be fair, many of Sullinger’s made shots were crude leaners that found the basket. Many of them came against someone other than Plumlee, particularly after his undeserved second foul, and some of the other points came on foul shouts of dubious origin. In fact, he looked a bit lost against Plumlee’s defense. Duke’s two-game stretch against Kansas and Ohio State have arguably featured the best performances of Plumlee’s career. After out-playing Thomas Robinson in Maui, he can now add a draw with Sullinger to his resume, and that can only bode well for this team’s future.
- It’s almost unfair that William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are so effective as counterparts to Craft and Sullinger. Frankly, Thad Matta, you gum-chewing son of a gun, that is over-doing it. You are no longer living off the fat of the land. You are a corporate raider with a private jet. Then again, how often will they shoot so well?
In essence, I’m pleading for a recognition of gray area. Ohio State deserves a big bucketful of credit, and any team on its schedule who isn’t terrified might be suffering from a pathological disorder that limits its experience of fear. But things aren’t always what they seem. This was the quintessential “slippery slope” game. Things started bad for Duke, got worse, and then it all went to hell. The Buckeyes narrative is a polar opposite. Shots were falling, the calls went their way, and Duke’s fatigue and nerves hamstrung them as the Buckeyes gained in confidence. The result was representative, but the margin and method were not.
Last season, Ohio State lost to Wisconsin by four on the road. It spoiled a perfect 24-0 record, and set up a classic revenge game back in Columbus. And man, did the Buckeyes get their revenge. It was a massacre, actually. You can imagine the delight of the pundits. The big dance started less than two weeks later, and anyone who was anyone picked the Buckeyes to win the title. As they should have. But today, look beyond the victory, and the excitement, and notice the past and the pending.
Past: Wisconsin beat them.
Pending: Both teams made the Sweet 16 and lost.
One night of excellence is just that. You can grasp at the larger significance, but it’s always a moment away from slipping through your fingers. Truth is tenuous that way. Better to abide by Kipling, and treat triumph and disaster as the same imposter. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.
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