Ohio State held on against Penn State last night to improve to 18-0 and ascend to a likely No. 1 ranking in the polls. Other than the Buckeyes, Penn State is probably playing the best basketball in the Big Ten right now and Ohio State had to battle all the way to the end in order to avoid their first loss of the season. Having beaten Michigan State and Illinois in the past week, the Nittany Lions were looking for their third consecutive victory over a ranked conference opponent. Freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, however, proved to be the difference. This included a dominating final two minutes from Sullinger.
I wrote on Thursday that Sullinger’s game against Michigan, which included 6 turnovers, was a less than impressive outing for the Wooden Award candidate. Penn State had no answer for the big man as he scored the final six points on two “and ones” in the paint. The Buckeyes shot only 13 free throws last night and Sullinger was responsible for 9 of those. His size in the post ensures that he will continually be able to get to the line. Sullinger’s free throw shooting is a huge factor in Ohio State’s success. He went 7 of 9 from the line last night and is shooting 74% for the year.
OSU’s other much less heralded freshman, Aaron Craft, is quickly becoming a key cog in the Buckeyes success. Craft is now taking Dallas Lauderdale’s minutes and moving William Buford over to the 2 spot. He, along with Sullinger, led the team in scoring with 19 points. With Jon Diebler cold from three, Craft’s four three pointers were a huge boost to the offense. He is now the primary ball handler against zone, man, or pressure and this frees up Buford to look for his own offense (who finished with 13 and was perfect from behind the arc).
In addition to his scoring, Craft dished out 7 assists while committing only one turnover. The freshman from Findlay is also not a major defensive liability and can definitely handle his own and he proved that last night against one of the better guards in the country. The 19 points were terrific but his defense on Penn State star Talor Battle was of equal importance.
While Penn State has been playing great basketball, it was hard to believe they were in this one all the way to the end with stud Battle struggling. Battle has been a star in the Big Ten for a couple years now and is absolutely one of the best guards in the league. Last night, he was a miserable 1 of 10 from three and that was the difference between a Nittany Lions win and loss. David Jackson picked up the slack and chipped in with 19 points in a good shooting night for the wing but Penn State has to have Battle cooking in order to win on the road in the Big Ten.
With the way PSU had been playing, I don’t think you can consider this a “bad win” for the Buckeyes. Ed DeChellis does a pretty good job at a school with an inexplicably bad basketball history. Ohio State is going to lose one of these close games in the near future but the emergence of Craft has to be encouraging for Buckeyes fans. He should only get better as the Big Ten season moves along. If Sullinger can continue to dominate inside and not wear down, the Buckeyes should end up with a second consecutive Big Ten season championship.
Kansas held on in the final minute yesterday at home as Nebraska missed a final possession game-tying three. I imagine the Jayhawks will receive some first place votes in the newest poll but it’s highly unlikely they will surpass the Buckeyes. Ohio State will be your number one team in the nation come Wednesday when the Iowa Hawkeyes travel to Columbus.
Brendan is a weekend editor at WaitingForNextYear. He has been writing for the site since March of 2009. He went to college in Boston during a run of insufferable Beantown championships that only served to reinforce his Cleveland allegiance and fandom which he transcribes to you here at WFNY.