Purdue coach Matt Painter is a smart guy. So is Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. When it comes to basketball, they know the game down to its very DNA. The rest of the coaches in the Big Ten are in the same club — their basketball knowledge has never been in question.
But while Painter and Ryan and their counterparts can devise elaborate game plans and get very creative in their approach to exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses and limiting the impact of its strengths, they have all essentially fallen short in one area when they have faced Ohio State.
They can implement press-breakers, effective inbounds plays and craft a useful help-defense approach, but they just can’t figure out what to do with Buckeyes sophomore forward Jared Sullinger.
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The Boilermakers tried the committee approach, rotating four or five fresh bodies on Sullinger throughout their Tuesday meeting with the Buckeyes, but Sullinger still finished with 18 points and six rebounds. He helped Ohio State earn an 87-84 win that kept the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) on top of the conference standings.
In the Buckeyes’ 58-52 win in Madison on Feb. 4, Ohio State witnessed a bold move by Ryan that had Sullinger guarded man-on-man by Wisconsin center Jared Berggren at the start. When that approach was obviously not producing the desired results — Sullinger scored 16 points in the first half — the Wisconsin coach went with forward Ryan Evans and then forward Mike Bruesewitz, hoping they could harness Sullinger.
The best Wisconsin could come up with did not work, as Sullinger finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes.
Ohio State senior guard William Buford, who has seen a variety of defensive tactics used on Sullinger, most with limited success, was surprised that anyone had tried to play the All-American straight up.
“Bo Ryan is a great coach, and I’m sure he had a strategy that he knew he was going to work,” Buford said, as diplomatically as possible. “Me personally, I don’t think you should put just one person on Jared. But that’s just me, personally.”
Nebraska had tried a virtual triple-team approach to defending Sullinger on Jan. 21, and while Sullinger was held to 14 points and five rebounds, the rest of the Buckeyes feasted on the arrangement in a 79-45 rout of the Huskers.
STAR WATCH: Forward Deshaun Thomas has continued to thrive in the shadow of fellow sophomore Jared Sullinger, who draws most of the attention from the opposition and the media. Thomas, chosen Mr. Basketball in Indiana when he was a senior at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne in 2010, has started all 24 games for the Buckeyes this season and scored in double figures in all of them. Thomas had 13 points and five rebounds to help Ohio State hold off a hot-shooting Purdue team 87-84 on Tuesday. He has been the Buckeyes’ scoring leader four times this season and the team’s rebounding leader four times. Thomas averages 14.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Thomas, who had a career-high 30 points in a Dec. 17 win at South Carolina, shoots better than 60 percent on his 2-point attempts.
Unsung guard Smith fills a key role for Buckeyes
The target on forward Jared Sullinger’s back was substantial. Making All-American as a freshman, then earning pre-season player of the year honors in the Big Ten will do that for you.
With senior guard William Buford returning to make a run at the Ohio State career scoring record, there would be plenty of attention sent his way, too. Point guard Aaron Craft had sculpted a reputation as a solid defender and a dynamic play-maker, while sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas was coming into his own as a scorer.
That left the fifth position on the 2011-12 Buckeyes as the wild card. Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. has taken the mystery out of how that fifth slot would be covered.
The physical, 6-foot-4 Smith gives defenders fits as a natural lefty who can pull up and shoot from outside the arc, or post-up smaller opponents.
Smith earned the start for the season-opener, and has started all of the Buckeyes’ first 23 games. He is averaging 6.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, with 47 assists and 26 steals.
The Chicago-area native toiled in relative obscurity until the Big Ten season arrived and he exploded for 28 points and seven rebounds in a Jan. 15 rout of Indiana. Proving that was no fluke, Smith came back two weeks later with 17 points and a game-high 12 rebounds as the Buckeyes hammered rival Michigan and knocked the Wolverines out of a first-place tie in the conference.
Matta said Smith is the ultimate roll player, content to scrap and do all of the little things most nights, but then provide a burst of offense when his team needs it.
“We sort of need a Jack-of-all-trades,” Matta said about Smith. “There are so many times where a team is going to choose to guard us a certain way and scheme a certain defense. I think he is really understanding his role. Lenzelle is a winner. He wants to play well and he wants to help this basketball team.”
–Ohio State coach Thad Matta has a history of finding the guys he trusts, and sticking with them. Some 23 games into the season, the Buckeyes’ starting lineup has remained the same, with the sole exception of the three games when they started junior F Evan Ravenel, who replaced sophomore F Jared Sullinger when Sullinger was injured. G William Buford, PG Aaron Craft, F Deshaun Thomas and G Lenzelle Smith Jr. all started the first 23 games.
–F Jared Sullinger had 24 points and 10 rebounds with three steals as the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin in the Kohl Center after losing nine straight times there.
–With their win at Wisconsin on Feb. 4, the Buckeyes moved to 20-3 and marked the eighth straight season with at least 20 wins. That gives Ohio State the longest such streak in the Big Ten.
–The Buckeyes have been especially efficient at playing with the lead late in games, going 20-0 this season in games where they have had the lead with five minutes to play. Under head coach Thad Matta (2004-present), Ohio State is 195-5 when leading with five minutes left in the game.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17.9 — The Buckeyes were forcing their opponents into nearly 18 turnovers a game this season through Feb. 5.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “Each team, each game, poses a different situation. It all ties to what you’re trying to do offensively and what you’re trying to do defensively.” — Ohio State coach Thad Matta, on his approach to the Big Ten and not overly emphasizing any one game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK’S GAMES:
–vs. Michigan State, Feb. 11
KEY MATCHUPS: When these two Big Ten powers clash, it’s muscle against muscle inside with Ohio State F Jared Sullinger and the Spartans senior F Draymond Green, who leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 10.3 per game. Michigan State C Derrick Nix likely gets assigned to Sullinger in a bout of quick big men. The most critical matchup in this one could the one between Ohio State PG Aaron Craft and Michigan State’s PG Keith Appling. Freshman G/F Branden Dawson has emerged as a serious scoring threat in the Big Ten season, and likely matches up with Ohio State senior G William Buford, a much-improved defender.
FUTURES MARKET: The Buckeyes are sold on freshman C Amir Williams and the prospects for him developing into a very solid Big Ten post player. Williams had appeared in 19 games for the Buckeyes this season through Feb. 5 and had averaged about eight minutes per game, but playing time is tough to come by with All-American C/F Jared Sullinger in front of Williams on the depth chart. Williams averaged 18 points, 12.6 rebounds and almost five blocks per game last year as a senior at Detroit powerhouse Country Day High School, and he was named a McDonalds All-American.
–Senior G William Buford has enjoyed his encounters with Purdue over his four years at Ohio State, and his final regular-season game against the Boilermakers topped them all. Buford scored a career-high 29 points, including a steal for a dunk that essentially put the game away in the closing moments, leading the Buckeyes to an 87-84 win on Feb. 7. Buford came into the game averaging 14.1 points in his seven previous meetings with Purdue. He had 21 points in the second half against Purdue, helping the Buckeyes win a 40th straight game at Value City Arena.
–While F Jared Sullinger is respected enough around the Big Ten to earn the league’s preseason player of the year honors as a sophomore, his work when the Buckeyes are at home in Value City Arena has been especially devastating on the opposition. Sullinger averages a double-double in Ohio State’s games in Columbus, with a team-best 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He was a little off that pace with 18 points and six boards in the 87-84 home win over Purdue on Tuesday that kept the Buckeyes alone in first place in the Big Ten. Sullinger also leads the team with his accuracy at home, where he shoots 58 percent from the field.
–PG Aaron Craft was recently selected one of the 11 finalists for the 2012 Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard. The sophomore was also named to the Academic All-District 5 First Team and is under consideration for Academic All-American status. Craft is an exercise science/pre-med major with a 3.89 GPA.