Rob Oller | Jay Bilas hops aboard the fun ride that is Buckeyes basketball

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Team defense by the likes of Duane Washington Jr. (4) and E.J. Liddell helped hold all-American Iowa center Luka Garza to a season-low 16 points.
  • The Buckeyes are 9-1 at home

Jay Bilas thinks No. 7 Ohio State can win the NCAA national championship. Of course, the ESPN college basketball analyst thinks Gonzaga and Baylor can win it, too, as well as a handful of others. Still, holding such a high opinion of the Buckeyes means something.

Bilas, a licensed attorney, watches more college hoops than most. He is a smart guy, having played at Duke. Or maybe it’s that Dick Vitale, a Dookie lover like no other, has convinced me that Bilas has more brains than the ordinary TV talking head. Probably it's both.

What I know for certain is that Bilas understands basketball the way a talented baker appreciates the best flour — King Arthur brand, all-purpose — and after working the Ohio State-Iowa game on Thursday night he has a fresh perspective on what makes the Buckeyes tick.

I have my own thoughts, so I contacted Bilas to compare notes.

Me: These Buckeyes are enjoyable because they play hard, are capable of hitting the three (for a change) and compete with a certain joie de vivre. They’re also erratic enough to keep things interesting. I wouldn’t have pegged them as a Final Four team even a few weeks ago, but after defeating the No. 8 Hawkeyes 89-85 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena I can see where if the matchups fall just right they can make a deep run into March.

Bilas: Ohio State can beat anybody. They’re legit. They’re fun to watch on film because they’re so innovative offensively. They have a lot of different ways to score. That’s one reason I knew before the game that Iowa would not play much man-to-man, because they would give up 90 points if they did. And they played zone and still gave up almost 90.

Me: I thought the biggest soft spot this season would be Ohio State’s lack of size, but the defense kept 6-foot-11 Iowa center Luka Garza in check, holding him to 16 points, 10 under his average. The Buckeyes’ help defense — Zed Key and Kyle Young, among others — frustrated the likely Wooden Award winner to where he was whining about non-calls. If OSU can avoid playing teams with above-average size, like Purdue, the road to the Final Four becomes more navigable.

Bilas: They’re undersized; not a team with tremendous length or bulk inside. But they get rim protection, even if they’re not blocking a ton of shots. The only thing where you can go after Ohio State is they can still improve defensively. They’re not a bad defensive team, but one thing I saw is they tend to over-help, which gets them into too many help-and-recover situations. Help and recover means going in two different directions, and when that happens you’re going to get burned by today’s teams.

Me: I’m so impressed with how far Justice Sueing has come since transferring from Cal. The junior guard goes into the hard places, is strong on the boards and is noticeably poised. If there is an unsung hero (among a team of mostly unsung heroes) he would be my pick.

Bilas: Sueing is a really good player. I get the whole Pac-12 thing about being soft, but fans and media have to get over that stereotype. That dude can play, and he’s smart and he’s dedicated.

Me: Is there an NBA prospect on this team? Maybe E.J. Liddell? Put it this way, no one is a lock, which makes what coach Chris Holtmann is doing that much more impressive.

Bilas: Obviously it’s about the players, but Holtmann is a marvel. He’s a great coach who has carried on a really good culture there. He demands accountability, but there's a positive nature to it. He wants those guys to go and ball out. It’s controlled freedom, not three yards and a cloud of dust stuff. It’s a fun system.

Me: The concept of having fun is not always evident in college sports. Former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer liked to correct those who described the grind of practices and even games as being fun. But these Buckeyes buck the norm. They’re having a blast. And Holtmann has much to do with it.

Bilas: We’re allowed to be energized by good stuff. I watched Ohio State a lot last year, and this year’s team is different, in a good way. I enjoy watching them play. When somebody at ESPN says, "Go do the Ohio State game," in the back of my mind I’m going, "Yes!”

There you have it. A lawyer laying it all on the court. For him, the verdict is in. These Buckeyes, at 15-4, are really, really good. 

roller@dispatch.com

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