‘No one believed in us’ inspired Buckeyes

It seems a bit odd to celebrate a trip to the Final Four with another dissertation about being “disrespected,” but that is where Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger decided to take things in the moments after the Buckeyes turned back Syracuse 77-70 in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional to earn a trip to New Orleans.

Sullinger, the wide-bodied inside force whom many thought would exit Columbus as an NBA lottery pick following last season’s performance that earned him All-America status, said he and his teammates used the negative comments they received during a wobbly stretch this year to motivate them.

“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn’t good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature,” Sullinger shot back when asked about his feelings on reaching the Final Four. “We heard it all.”

The Buckeyes (31-7) had deserved some degree of questioning after losing three times in a five-game stretch late in the Big Ten schedule. Only a heroic effort on the final day of the regular season that produced a win at Michigan State brought them a share of the Big Ten title they had been favored all along to claim.

“When we was going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill,” Sullinger said. “We heard negative comments. I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. It’s just that — I mean, we came from nothing, according to y’all, to something now. “

What the Buckeyes get now is Kansas in a national semifinal. There’s no doubt that Ohio State coach Thad Matta will ask his team to be resilient, as it was during that rough patch this season, and like the Buckeyes had to be against Syracuse, when foul trouble limited Sullinger to just six minutes of action in the first half.

“Jared got in a little bit of foul trouble, and everybody kind of pulled together, and it’s something we’ve been preaching with this basketball team,” Matta said. “It came down in the second half to guys making big plays. And we told them, to win this game, somebody was going to have to step up and make plays.”

Ohio State got big plays from the usual suspects — Sullinger, defensive demon Aaron Craft, scoring machine Deshaun Thomas — and from some members of the supporting cast.

Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. got knocked out of the game in the opening minutes with a cut above his eye, took a few stitches, then came back to score 18 points with some clutch plays down the stretch. Seldom-used freshman center Amir Williams had to spell Sullinger for an extensive period in the first half while Sullinger was saddled with foul trouble, and Williams helped keep the Buckeyes even with Syracuse.

Matta, obviously weary from the emotional ride his team has carried him on but very pleased with where the trip has taken the Buckeyes, got philosophical about the journey.

“As I take a moment to reflect, I don’t know if I could be prouder of a basketball team, with everything they have been through,” Matta said. “I think the thing that made me most proud is that these guys just kept getting better. The thing I enjoy the most about this team is that they have grown to enjoy the process. I think that’s something as a head coach that you look for in a team.”

NOTES, QUOTES

Free-throw edge has been crucial

–The Buckeyes know how vital the foul line is in NCAA Tournament play. Ohio State hit 31 of 42 free throws in its 77-70 win over Syracuse that made the Buckeyes the East Regional champs. The 42 attempts were an Ohio State record, while the 31 made free throws are the second most in school history. On the season, the Buckeyes have been to the line 831 times, while their opponents have shot just 585 free throws.

–Freshman C Amir Williams likely expected to spend most of Ohio State’s Elite Eight showdown with Syracuse sitting on the bench, waving a towel when the Buckeyes went on a run and providing encouragement from outside the lines. But early foul trouble limited starter F/C Jared Sullinger to just six minutes in the first half, and the 6-foot-11 Williams, who did not play at all in two of Ohio State’s previous NCAA games this year, went nearly 10 minutes in the first half and had four rebounds, three points and two blocks.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “You know, midway through the season, I think we had to do some soul searching as a basketball team. We had some good times, and we definitely went through a rough patch where we lost three of five. I don’t think any of us had really dealt with that before playing basketball. Now I think we’re doing a good job of sticking together, understanding that’s what this is about.” — Ohio State sophomore PG Aaron Craft.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

SCOUTING REPORT: The Buckeyes got a repeat lesson in the value of sophomore C/F Jared Sullinger when he quickly found foul trouble in the regional final against Syracuse. Sullinger played just six minutes in the first half, and Ohio State had to adapt its offense and utilize sophomore F Deshaun Thomas more while relying on scoring from the perimeter. When Sullinger returned to the floor, the whole demeanor of Ohio State’s attack changed. The ball went inside on almost every possession, and Sullinger usually produced points. He went 9-for-12 from the line, scoring 19 points with seven rebounds. Ohio State got solid backup play from junior F/C Evan Ravenel and freshman C Amir Williams while Sullinger was on the bench. Sophomore G Lenzelle Smith Jr. came back from a blow to the head that required a few stitches and scored 18 points, proving once again how dangerous he can be. Sophomore PG Aaron Craft continues to provide the defensive mentality for this team, and he can score just enough to keep the opposition from cheating off him too much. Senior G William Buford has not yet emerged from his extended funk — he went just 3-of-12 against Syracuse — but his coach trusted him enough to keep Buford on the floor for all 40 minutes in that game. Thomas had 14 points and nine rebounds against Syracuse, and he remains locked and loaded and capable of scoring 30 on any night. In the Final Four, the Buckeyes will likely need Sullinger to avoid spells of foul trouble and for Buford to provide more consistent shooting and scoring.

FUTURES WATCH: Should sophomore C/F Jared Sullinger jump to the NBA following this season, as most suspect he will, freshman C Amir Williams appears ready to move into the middle for the Buckeyes. After Williams played extensive minutes against Syracuse while Sullinger was in foul trouble and proved quite efficient while the All-American was on the bench, Sullinger provided the best hint yet that his move to the NBA is coming.

“Amir has always had talent,” Sullinger said following the win over Syracuse. “It’s just unfortunate he’s playing behind me and Evan (Ravenel) at the time, so watch out for him next year.” Watch for Williams to further develop and give the Buckeyes a steady, if not spectacular, presence in the middle for next season.

REGULAR SEASON REVIEW: After a robust start that saw them crush Duke by 22 points and win 13 of their first 14 games, the Buckeyes hit a mid-February swoon in the Big Ten and lost three times in five games, including twice at home — to Wisconsin and Michigan State. Ohio State rallied to win its final four Big Ten games of the season, beating Michigan State on the road on the last day to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship.

ROSTER REPORT:

–Sophomore PG Aaron Craft fouled out of the NCAA East Regional final against Syracuse with just under a minute to play, picking up all five fouls in the second half. Craft has 47 assists in his seven career NCAA Tournament games entering the Final Four.

–Sophomore G Lenzelle Smith Jr. took a blow to the head just two minutes into the game against Syracuse and needed several stitches to close a cut above his eye. Smith returned to the game and scored 18 points to help the Buckeyes advance to the Final Four.

–Freshman C Amir Williams, who had not played significant minutes since early January, came off the bench against Syracuse in the NCAA East Regional final and played nine minutes in the first half, spelling the foul-plagued Jared Sullinger. Williams had four rebounds, three points and two blocked shots.