Jackson's Five: Ohio State's Big Week
It's a big week for the Ohio State basketball team. Let's explore.
Tuesday night, the Buckeyes play a game they should win at Illinois. They should win a lot of games -- almost all of them -- when they're healthy and clicking, and it appears they are. But Illinois has some talent, provides a tough place to play and all involved on the Illinois side -- players and fans -- will treat this one like the Super Bowl. The Buckeyes are used to that by now, and they generally handle it well. Head coach Thad Matta keeps reminding everybody this team is much younger and less experienced than last year's bunch, and in a broad sense he's right. But the key guys have been here before and should be able to show the way. This is an Ohio State team that will keep improving -- and needs to -- every week. If it's peaking in March, it will have a shot.
After this game comes a bit of an extended rest and a suddenly very interesting home game Sunday vs. Indiana. Perhaps you remember when the Hoosiers were always good? Also, perhaps you remember Indiana beating Ohio State on New Year's Eve? Indiana is 15-1 heading into its next game Thursday vs. Minnesota, and the Hoosiers have proven to be no fluke. They probably aren't ready for what's going to hit them Sunday in Columbus, but we'll find out. It's a national spotlight game, a huge game in the scheme of the Big Ten race and one to remember as the season progresses.
Jared Sullinger appears to be back to being Jared Sullinger, and that's good news for the Buckeyes and very bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. December was a month to forget for Sullinger as he battled some nagging injuries, then had to play his way back into shape in some no-win situation-type games, but he seems to be back now. Sullinger has two double-doubles in four Big Ten games, had 28 points and eight rebounds in Saturday's business-like demolition of Iowa and faces another big week as he battles Illinois' Myers Leonard and Indiana super-freshman Cody Zeller on the block this week. "I think he's finally feeling good," Matta said. "He feels more comfortable out there. He's getting back into game shape. His lift is back. His timing is back."
One of the luxuries Matta has is knowing that Sullinger is going to be a double-double guy and probably an 18 or 20-point guy in these big games. Matta's known for keeping his rotations tight, but another luxury he's had lately is that the young players he's played in big minutes, whether by experiment or necessity, have handled themselves well. The Buckeyes are athletic and potentially deep, and these games will both test that depth and give the likes of Shannon Scott, Jordan Sibert, Sam Thompson and J.D. Weatherspoon the chance to earn minutes and Matta's trust.
It's too early to think about NCAA tournament seeding, especially because the Big Ten race is just beginning and shaping up to be a wild one. But there's no doubt Indiana has a No. 1-seed type resume with wins over Kentucky and Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a lesser, but similar, one with wins over Florida and Duke, and it gets better now that Michigan State is playing its best basketball right now. Obviously, Michigan State has already beaten Indiana, and somebody is going to lose Sunday's Indiana-Ohio State game. With the way Michigan is playing and the way Illinois and Purdue and Wisconsin remain dangerous -- especially at home -- there's a whole lot of sorting left to do. The Buckeyes haven't played like a No. 1 seed since the Duke game, and there are reasons for that. The next three weeks give Ohio State a chance to change things.
One other very key area to watch: William Buford had 28 points and five three-pointers in the Big Ten opener, a rout of Northwestern. He's gone 0 for 2, 0 for 5 and 1 for 4 from beyond the arc in the three league games since. The Buckeyes need those shots and they need Buford to be efficient to be at their best.