When Ohio State fell behind by 19 points early in the second half at fifth-ranked Louisville on Tuesday night, it looked like the best-case scenario for the Buckeyes would be avoiding getting embarrassed in their first real test of the season.
Turns out they did far better than that.
A late scoring flurry from standout freshman D'Angelo Russell helped Ohio State silence the roaring red-clad road crowd and slash the deficit to as few as three points in the final minute. Only a huge top of the key three from Louisville guard Terry Rozier enabled the Cardinals to halt the Buckeyes' momentum and pull away for a 64-55 victory in the marquee game of day 2 of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Tuesday's clash of unbeatens provided the first true glimpse of where both Louisville and Ohio State stand in the national pecking order. Since the Cardinals had played nobody of consequence since their season opener against Minnesota and the Buckeyes had played nobody of note besides Marquette, their meeting served as somewhat of a early barometer for both teams.
What we learned about Louisville is that its defense is further along than its offense, as is the norm for a Rick Pitino team.
The Cardinals created 11 steals with their swarming pressure and bothered Ohio State with their length around the rim, yet they couldn't put the game away because they struggled to attack the Buckeyes' zone defense in the second half. All-American candidate Montrezl Harrell only took eight shots and nobody but him and Wayne Blackshear scored with any semblance of efficiency.
It's also clear that Rozier isn't afraid of big moments. Despite beginning the night 0-for-7 from the field and reaggravating a jammed finger he had suffered in practice, the sophomore shooting guard still had the confidence to knock down a pair of late threes that helped keep Ohio State at arm's length.
What we learned about the Buckeyes is that they're probably not as far along offensively as they seemed to be against lesser competition.
Though Ohio State lost its three top scorers from a team that struggled on offense already last season, the Buckeyes have actually been more efficient this year because Shannon Scott has thrived in his natural point guard role, Russell has emerged as a go-to threat and Marc Loving has become as a complementary scorer. Loving actually performed well with 13 points against Louisville, but Scott and Russell found success a bit tougher against the Cardinals than they did against the likes of UMass Lowell and James Madison.
Scott couldn't handle Louisville's aggressive ball pressure, committing five turnovers and shooting 1 of 7 from the field. Russell tried to do too much himself as the Buckeyes fell behind early, hoisting 20 shots and only making six of them because of some late offense.
The good news for Ohio State is that the mettle it showed in the second half will serve it well later in the season, as will the experience of trying to score against Louisville's defense. The bad news is that the weak non-league schedule Thad Matta designed for his team this season only provides one more chance for a remotely noteworthy victory.
Ohio State will play North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago later this month.
Win that, and the Buckeyes will validate their top 20 ranking and enter Big Ten play in strong position. Lose that, and they'll start the conference season with a victory over a rebuilding Marquette team serving as the best win on a lackluster resume.
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