COLUMBUS, Ohio — Based on last year’s success and the spotlight that came with it, there were certain things we knew about this year’s Ohio State basketball team before the season even started.
We knew that Jared Sullinger was pretty darn good. We knew that William Buford was going to get his shots and make his share, and that Buford also would be streaky. We knew that Deshaun Thomas was going to get his shots, too, and might even make Buford look shy. We knew that Aaron Craft would be a steady leader and a great defender.
We knew that Ohio State would miss the shooting and experience of Jon Diebler and David Lighty. We knew that Thad Matta had young talent on hand ready to step up, but that talent — including Thomas, to an extent — was unproven. We also knew that Matta preferred a short rotation, especially in big games.
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Now, with just three games left in the regular season, we know No. 9 Ohio State is easy to read in some regards and very difficult to read in others. The Buckeyes have flaws — streaky shooting, and outside shooting in general chief among them — and have delivered two flat offensive performances in the last two weeks against the two other best teams in the Big Ten, Michigan and Michigan State.
But the Buckeyes still do a lot of things well, too. Their half-court defense is solid and often leads to easy scores at the other end. Ohio State is at its best in a fast-paced game that allows Craft to set up the scorers around him and dares opponents to keep up with the Buckeyes’ athleticism. Tuesday night vs. Illinois, Matta used freshman point guard Shannon Scott in the game alongside Craft for an extended period, giving Ohio State a lineup that stayed on the attack and led to quick baskets.
The Buckeyes haven’t been great over the last three weeks, but they still already have 23 wins, have lost just once on their home floor and have the talent to make a deeper run through the NCAA Tournament than they did last year, likely as a No. 2 seed. Below are six areas to watch and factors that will determine just how long Ohio State’s run through March will be…
RIDE THE WORKHORSE
As good and as balanced as Ohio State was last year, Sullinger was clearly its best player. It was a joke that he didn’t win Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was a strong candidate for National Player of the Year honors. His numbers (17 points, 9 rebounds per game) are almost identical this year, but the slimmed-down Sullinger got hurt in December, missed some time and needed to work his way back to full speed. Ohio State is still at its best when the ball goes through him in the post. Because he’s both unselfish and an excellent passer, he needs his teammates to knock down open shots he creates by passing out of double teams. One way to clean up — or at least put off — the shooting woes Ohio State has experienced is to remember to throw it inside to Sullinger before anything else.
THE SHOTS MUST DROP
Sullinger has stepped outside more than he did last season, and he’d say that’s by necessity. As long as it’s not out of desperation, Matta would be fine with that. The Buckeyes are shooting just under 34 percent on 3-pointers in conference play, making five per game, and are around that same percentage for the season. They have to do better. Sophomore Lenzelle Smith has been a surprise starter and a big contributor in a couple games, but defenses will take their chances letting him shoot as the games get bigger. Thomas has added polish to his game and is doing much of his scoring at the rim, but his outside shot, like that of his teammates, has been inconsistent. The Buckeyes aren’t a team that needs to make 10 or 11 3-pointers a game, but they need to make more than five. And they need Buford to make two or three.
BILLY BIG SHOT
Buford shot a combined 5-for-24 in the Michigan State and Michigan losses, shades of his 2-of-16 performance in last year’s regional semifinal loss to Kentucky. The Buckeyes need their lone senior to score, and scoring is what he does best. Maybe Buford slumped at the right time and can go forward from here, but he needs to have a big day against a quality opponent for his own confidence and to take pressure off of Sullinger and Craft.
FIND THE RIGHT MIX
Every team has flaws — yes, even Kentucky and Syracuse. Ohio State struggled in slow-paced games (Michigan and Northwestern, for example) last year, though Diebler’s area code 3-point range ensured the Buckeyes almost never saw zone defenses and his shooting changed the momentum of more than a few games. The Buckeyes don’t have a shot-blocker at the back line of their defense and Michigan State was able to expose that, but the team defense has been consistently pretty good. Right now Matta is basically using his starting five, big man Evan Ravenel in spurts and two freshmen, Scott and the high-flying Sam Thompson. If the Buckeyes use their athleticism and halfcourt defense to create transition chances going the other way, they can win and win big with their current rotation. They’re out-rebounding conference opponents by seven boards per game, and that’s a stat that will get more important as the games do, too.
CRAFT MUST SCORE
He’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and his teammates know he can find them from just about any angle with the ball in his hands. Defenses know Craft looks to pass first (and second), too, and they’ve adjusted accordingly. Craft is shooting 40 percent on 3-point tries in league play, but the fact he’s only taken 20 of them in 15 games indicates he’s looking to score only when needed. That might change — it might have to change — down the stretch if Buford can be more consistent (and draw more defensive attention) and if the two point guard experiment with Scott continues. Teams might counter that by playing zone, and in that case Craft would almost have to shoot. Teams are going to continue to throw varying defenses and double-teams at Sullinger, and the Buckeyes must make shots to open up things in the post.
Even with its best player doing his best work in the post, Ohio State is at its best when it gets to play fast. A whole lot of coaches would trade their guards for Craft, Buford and Smith. Thomas, who was already built like an NBA forward when he first stepped onto campus 20 months ago, plays like a guard at times as well. Scott’s jumpshot needs work, and he’s still trying to find his confidence. But he was a McDonald’s All-American 10 months ago, and that’s another luxury Matta has — a lot of talent. He’s still trying to find the right combinations and maximize it, but dismissing the Buckeyes at this point would be silly.