Buckeyes respond to critics in a big way

When the Buckeyes lost twice at home in the final two weeks of the season, and dropped two out of three Big Ten games in a critical late stretch with the conference championship hanging in the balance, they pounced on the panic button.

It seemed like everyone but Oprah weighed in on what was ailing Ohio State, the Big Ten’s two-time defending champion. Even the self-analysis was pretty rough stuff.

“I don’t think we’re always together,” senior guard William Buford said in an effort to explain the prolonged and perplexing funk the Buckeyes found themselves stuck in.

Well, the Buckeyes snapped out of it on the final day of the regular season and upset Michigan State on the road in East Lansing by a 72-70 score. That gave Ohio State (13-5) a piece of a third straight Big Ten championship, and salved the wounds that had been festering since those recent losses.

Heading into the Big Ten tournament as the No. 3 seed, the Buckeyes answered the gut check that came along with the trip to face Michigan State. They might have also answered some tough questions, or at least put them aside for the time being.

With Buford as the team’s only senior and forward Evan Ravenel, a transfer playing his first season in Columbus as the only junior, this team quite possibly had some maturity issues as the Big Ten title chase got tight and stayed tight.

The Buckeyes (25-6) seemed to look the worst at the most critical times with silly shots, poor decisions and a lot of complaining about calls they did not get. In all of their conference losses, the Buckeyes had spells where they looked every bit as young as they are, with four sophomores and Buford composing the starting lineup.

One of those starters, guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., said he thought his team had somehow lost its way deep into the Big Ten season when home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin were sandwiched around wins over a couple weaker teams, and a loss at Michigan.

“I think we’re finally back and understanding our system,” Smith said as the Buckeyes prepared to close the regular season.

Their system called for Buford to come up big in the showdown with the Spartans as he nailed a jump shot with one second to play to provide the margin of victory. Buford finished with 25 points, scoring 19 of them in the second half.

NOTES, QUOTES

Sullinger: Unfair treatment from officials

–C/F Jared Sullinger has complained about being the victim of a double standard over the way he has been treated by the officials this season. After his skill at positioning himself won widespread praise last season, Sullinger seems to think he is judged more harshly when there’s contact around the basket than his opponents are.

–PG Aaron Craft is shooting 55 percent from the field in Big Ten games, and is the only player on Ohio State who is more accurate in conference games than he was in non-conference games. Craft played all 40 minutes in the season finale against Michigan State that gave the Buckeyes a piece of the Big Ten title. He scored nine points, with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals.

–Ohio State went 8-1 against the lower-tier teams in the Big Ten this season, and just 5-4 against the five teams that joined the Buckeyes in the top tier of the conference.

–The Buckeyes lost two of their final three home games this season, after winning 39 in a row at Value City Arena.

BY THE NUMBERS: 129 — Ohio State senior G William Buford has started 129 games in his career ? more than any other Buckeye in school history.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s a toughness game every time you play Michigan State. It wasn’t just one guy; it was guy after guy making plays.” — Ohio State PG Aaron Craft on the season-ending win over Michigan State

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–vs. Purdue-Nebraska winner, March 9
–vs. TBD, March 10-11  

FUTURES MARKET: Expect 2012-13 to be the season when F Deshaun Thomas blossoms into a star in the Big Ten. If C/F Jared Sullinger stays another year, that will enhance Thomas’ chances of being one of the conference’s more prolific scorers, but even if Sullinger goes, Thomas appears to have the skills and the confidence to be one of the top producers in the league. Thomas scored in double figures in 26 of Ohio State’s 30 games this season, and 12 points and four rebounds in the win at Michigan State that gave the Buckeyes a share of the Big Ten crown.

PLAYER NOTES

–C/F Jared Sullinger was in foul trouble throughout the season finale against Michigan State, and went 5-of-17 from the field, but still managed a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds in the 72-70 Ohio State win.

–F Evan Ravenel played a key supporting role in the win at Michigan State on March 4 that clinched a share of the Big Ten title. He played just eight minutes, but had seven points, two rebounds and two assists.