Ohio State gets the ESPN stage tonight at Illinois (9 PM ET), as we start the run of Tuesdays being Big Ten-SEC night for a college hoops doubleheader. The Buckeyes are 15-2 and ranked #5 in the country. Coming off a season in which they won the Big Ten and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky, Ohio State has great expectations for this year’s team, especially when forward Jared Sullinger decided to return for his sophomore season. The record and ranking suggest they’re living up to it, although they are one of five Big Ten teams trailing league leader Michigan State by a half-game. Let’s break down the Ohio State lineup and see what the future might hold…
Jared Sullinger (6’9” Sophomore): He’s the man the hopes in Columbus are built around and is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. Sullinger is a pure post player. He’s not a hybrid that you’ll see step out and take three-point shots. Given that, I would like to see a little more dominance on the glass against good teams. In the three toughest opponents he’s faced—Florida, Duke and Indiana, Sullinger has yet to have a 10-plus rebound game. That’s a high bar to set, and in fairness he’s not been AWOL in any of those games. The one game he was out was Kansas, and the Buckeyes lost that one. I only set the 10-rebound benchmark because Ohio State’s expectations are so high and Sullinger has to be the man that puts them on his back.
DeShaun Thomas (6’7” Sophomore): Thomas’ emergence this season has been huge in getting Sullinger some help down low. Thomas averages 15 points a game, and while he’s not a great rebounder, this is the forward who can step out and drain it from behind the arc. Like Sullinger, Thomas shoots a good percentage from the floor and his outside touch makes him a big X-factor against good teams.
Lenzell Smith (6’4” Sophomore): Smith is the weak link in this starting lineup, averaging five points a game and he’s a 47 percent foul shooter. His big moment might be in March when Ohio State’s trying to hold a slim lead and an opponent forces the ball to Smith so they can foul him. Then those free throws decide how a 19-year old kid will be remembered in Columbus. I’m getting ahead of myself in the hypotheticals here, but right now Smith is a non-factor in this lineup.
William Buford (6’6” Senior): The veteran is the big scorer on the wings. He shoots a respectable 44 percent from the floor and 36 percent from behind the arc. You want the ball in his hands at the end of games as a vet who can hit his free throws. Buford has also played big in the biggest games—21 points against Florida, 20 against Duke and 21 at Kansas. At least until New Year’s Eve in Indiana when the Hoosiers held him to eight. The fact Ohio State lost that game tells you something about the importance of Buford’s scoring. He’s the second-most important player on the team behind Sullinger.
Aaron Craft (6’2” Sophomore): Craft runs the show and averages a solid five assists a game. The surest way to cause problems for the Buckeyes is to force Craft into turnovers and that’s what Indiana was able to do. Craft is a pretty good shooter from the floor, so you can’t back off him and play the pass. But at the free throw line he’s only 68 percent and this is the guy who’s going to have to break pressure in close games down the stretch.
This lineup overall is nicely balanced, with Sullinger being a pure post man, something that’s hard to find in college hoops, with Buford handling the backcourt scoring, Craft distributing and Thomas working as a solid support player. The problems this team has is depth and experience. You may have noted that four of the starters are sophomores, and while this matters a lot less than it once did, thanks to all the early entries for the NBA, it still has to be something that concerns head coach Thad Matta. Depth is also a critical factor. There’s no one beyond the starting five really accumulating notable minutes and even with the starting five, Smith is a dead spot. Ohio State’s Core Four of Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft is going to have to carry them.
After tonight’s game at Illinois, Ohio State gets a rematch on Sunday with Indiana (4:30 PM ET, CBS). It looks like the best way to beat the Buckeyes is to create some flow problems in the backcourt and get Craft to turn the ball over. Illinois has a good guard combination in D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, although Richardson is nursing an ankle injury. He’ll play tonight, but who knows what the effectiveness level will be. Illinois is also missing third guard Sam Manicalco, so for this night Bruce Weber has a bigger depth problem than Matta. Then it’s the rematch with Indiana, a must-win game. Ohio State lost the first game because they turned it over 17 times. While IU is tough down low with Cody Zeller at center, the Buckeyes beat them on the glass, an area they’ve dominating in the Big Ten. With homecourt advantage and perhaps less sloppy play, Ohio State can get two wins this week.
Wins over Illinois and Indiana are followed by an easy week with games against Nebraska and Penn state. If Ohio State is 7-1 in conference play by then, the Big Ten schedule can start for real on January 29 when they play Michigan and usher in a set of four tough gamest that include a battle with Michigan State.
So can Ohio State fulfill its promise? I have deep doubts, due to the lack of depth. I would still pick them to win the Big Ten, but in a much more balanced race than was originally anticipated and I see them a step behind a team like North Carolina or even Baylor, who could be the ones standing in the way of a national title.