Sullinger remains opponents’ primary concern

The Buckeyes expect that by the end of the current season, they will have seen every conceivable defensive alignment as the rest of the Big Ten tries to keep sophomore forward Jared Sullinger from living up to the player-of-the-year expectations most have laid out for him.

As the Buckeyes head into a second early-season Big Ten showdown with Indiana, Ohio State’s potential for success, and to live up to the role as favorite to repeat as Big Ten champions, is attached to Sullinger.

In a recent road outing against Iowa, Sullinger saw an assortment of double-teams and help arrangements, but it all seemed to hardly slow down the freshman All-American from last season.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery laid out what is going to be one of the main problems the rest of the Big Ten will have in preparing to defend Sullinger’s unique combination of size, strength and quickness.

“Sometimes you try to simulate it, and he’s a hard guy to simulate because he’s just so quick,” McCaffery said. “We didn’t do a very good job on him, but it’s a collective thing.”

Sullinger gave the Hawkeyes headaches Jan. 7 by scoring 28 points on 13-of-18 shooting from the floor. He added eight rebounds as the Buckeyes routed Iowa 76-47.

“I want him to do that. I think he’s good enough to do that,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said about the way Sullinger can take over a Big Ten game.

The Buckeyes were not as fortunate the next time out, losing 79-74 at Illinois. Matched up with 7-footer Meyers Leonard, Sullinger had 21 points and five rebounds, but the Buckeyes fell to 3-2 in Big Ten action as they head into the rematch with Indiana.

The Hoosiers’ won the first meeting 74-70 on New Year’s Eve in Bloomington, Ind. Sullinger finished with 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds.

TRENDING: The Buckeyes know they are a unique lot, given their abundance of youth, and that makes the leadership role carried by G William Buford, the team’s lone senior, all the more critical. When Buford went into a shooting funk recently, it was a serious issue. He started the Iowa game missing his first 10 shots, but his team recovered from his off-night and dominated. Buford came back and hit seven of 18 shots from the field and scored 15 points in Tuesday’s 79-74 loss at Illinois. The Big Ten schedule is a well-documented grind, but for Ohio State to prevail, it will need Buford to be hitting from outside and well as filling the leadership role. His performance against Illinois has the Buckeyes hoping Buford shook off the Iowa doldrums and is trending in a positive direction.

NOTES, QUOTES

Coaches play the psychology game at every opportunity, looking for ways to flip with switch, light the lamp or spark the fire. When they hit the right mental trigger with their players and the synapses start popping in the desired manner, the results can be rewarding.

As the Buckeyes move on in the Big Ten portion of their schedule, head coach Thad Matta might have hit on a good psychological play. After Ohio State suffered an early Big Ten loss to Indiana, the Buckeyes were saddled with some doubt and were getting the “over-rated” shouts from around the conference.

When Ohio State took its second Big Ten road trip, going to Iowa, Matta made certain to use the nightmarish Indiana experience to motivate his Buckeyes. The result was a 76-47 dismantling of the Hawkeyes that allowed Ohio State to swing the collective psyche back in the right direction.

Sophomore All-American forward Jared Sullinger went out and played like a man possessed, demanding the ball and responding when he got it. Sullinger hit 13-of-18 shots for 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds. He asserted himself while several teammates were hampered with foul trouble.

That was a confident Iowa team Ohio State faced, one fresh off a pair of back-to-back Big Ten wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it got flattened by the Buckeyes’ efforts to make a point they hope the rest of the Big Ten observed.

The Hawkeyes were punch-drunk after Ohio State got finished with them, and that is the group of Buckeyes nearly everyone expected to see win this conference again this season. Going forward, Ohio State is still searching for the right combinations, the right motivations and the proper approach as Matta sculpts this young team.

Matta acknowledged that he faces that task every day.

“I think that you are constantly trying to get into a routine,” Matta said. “Just to get these guys to understand the level that they have to play at every time they take the floor is something that is our job to do. I think we’ve probably practiced this team harder than we have in the past due to the maturity and the youthfulness of this team.”

–Senior G William Buford is generating some concern inside the Ohio State camp with his shooting swoon, and it appears the difficulty is starting to get inside Buford’s head. After an 0-for-10 shooting start in a recent game at Iowa, Buford changed his shoes at halftime. He finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists, but if the flood of recent misfires continues, the Buckeyes will have an unexpected issue to deal with concerning their only senior.

–F Jared Sullinger is likely not welcome in Iowa any longer. When he found three of his Ohio State teammates on the bench with foul trouble in the first half against the Hawkeyes, Sullinger took over. He scored a season-high 28 points to lead the Buckeyes to an easy 76-47 win. In his two games against Iowa last season as a freshman, Sullinger had 50 points and 21 rebounds.

–PG Aaron Craft is one of 20 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award that recognizes the top point guard in college basketball. The Ohio State sophomore is one of three Big Ten players on the list of finalists, joining Michigan’s Trey Burke and Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin.

BY THE NUMBERS: 100 — The Buckeyes are in their 100th season in the Big Ten. Ohio State is 727-663 against the current conference members. Surprisingly, Ohio State has a losing record all-time against Big Ten members Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Nope. And that’s what drives me insane.” — Ohio State coach Thad Matta, answering an inquiry about whether he has any players on his current team who practice with the same intensity of former Buckeye David Lighty.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:
–vs. Indiana, Jan. 15

KEY MATCHUPS: The Hoosiers are fresh in the minds of the Buckeyes since Ohio State lost at Indiana just three conference games prior to this rematch. F Christian Watford is the biggest threat on the Indiana team, and the Buckeyes will likely use F Deshaun Thomas on Watford in an effort to minimize his offensive impact. G Jordan Hulls scored 17 points in the earlier meeting, and Ohio State’s backcourt of PG Aaron Craft and G William Buford will share that duty. In the middle, Indiana freshman C Cody Zeller matches up with Ohio State sophomore F Jared Sullinger in a confrontation that favors the quicker Sullinger.

FUTURES MARKET: The Buckeyes might be establishing the reliable depth they are going to need for the long Big Ten grind. In a recent Big Ten road loss to Indiana, fouls limited the playing time of several starters and the Ohio State reserves did not make up the difference. In a subsequent road trip to Iowa, the Buckeyes saw starters Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., all on the bench with two first-half fouls, but the Ohio State machine never hesitated. Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson all played around 16 minutes each and filled in the void. With consistent contributions from this group, the Buckeyes should be able to weather any storms in the Big Ten season.

PLAYER NOTES

–Sophomore F Deshaun Thomas has taken on an increasingly large role with the Buckeyes in his first season as a starter, helping to balance the offensive load and relieve some of the scoring pressure that lands on All-American F Jared Sullinger and senior G William Buford. Thomas finished with 23 points in Ohio State’s 79-74 road loss to Illinois. It marked the 27th time in his career that Thomas has scored in double figures for the Buckeyes and the 16th time in the last 17 games.

–Sophomore PG Aaron Craft, widely recognized as one of the top defenders in the Big Ten, was part of a group of Buckeyes who had no defensive answer for Illinois’ G Brandon Paul, who scored 43 points against the Buckeyes. Craft, who had 12 points, seven assists, a steal and four rebounds in the game, was up in Paul’s face on more than one occasion, yet Paul finished 11-for-15 from the field and 8-for-10 from outside the 3-point arc. Craft and the Buckeyes move on to a showdown with Indiana, hoping they won’t be on the receiving end of a performance like that again in this Big Ten season.

–Junior F Evan Ravenel came to Ohio State with the expectation that after sitting out last season as a transfer from Boston College, he would be able to assume a prominent role in helping this team recover from the loss of most of its leadership from last year. As this very young team has developed, however, Ravenel has settled into a backup role, averaging about 13 minutes per game. Ravenel has started just three of the first 18 games.