Ohio State is 23-0 and off to its best start in the Big Ten in 50 years. They continue on their course to the NCAA tournament and first weekend protected seed at Quicken Loans Arena. They enter the toughest portion of their schedule this weekend with a top ranked target on their back.
Ohio State avoided an upset bid by a game Michigan team last night in front of what was the second sellout of the season at Value City Arena. They trailed the Wolverines for much of the first thirty minutes before building an 8 point with about ten minutes to play. They never relinquished the lead and went onto a 9 point victory to remain undefeated. They now enter a brutal stretch of the schedule where they will play all 5 teams at the top of the conference consecutively over the next two weeks.
Week That Was (2-0 - at Northwestern, Michigan)
Before heading out on the brutal stretch, however, the Buckeyes had to get through what was supposed to be a light week in conference. But OSU narrowly escaped with victories at Northwestern and last night against Michigan. It came as somewhat of a surprise on the heels of their most dominating week to date, crushing Purdue and handling Illinois on the road, but both Northwestern and Michigan are well coached and capable of staying with anyone in the conference.
Northwestern was without its best player and all-conference nominee John Shurna but the Wildcats still took the Buckeyes to the game’s final possession. David Lighty came up with a crucial steal and freshman Jared Sullinger came through with a tie breaking free throw. While continually unable to break through and make the tournament, Northwestern, over the course of the past 3 years, had been far from the doormat it has been for much of its history. The ability to win close or in a blowout, at home or on the road, may be OSU’s most impressive quality and indicative of their staying power come March.
The Michigan game last night was more of the same for Ohio State, although the sellout crowd ensured that it was not as close a call. The Buckeyes continued to make some sloppy turnovers as Michigan jumped on them in the first half and led for much of the game. But Ohio State’s defense, as was the case in Chicago, carried them to the victory.
Sullinger dominated inside as the freshman continues to make BigTen frontcourts his personal playground. It’s still astonishing to seem him consistently muscle through the opposition on almost every possession. UM Freshman Jordan Morgan had no chance against him and looked like a worn down and defeated man in the final 3 minutes of the game. In addition, Evan Smotrycz, who had some success drawing Sullinger out to the perimeter last month in Ann Arbor, was hopeless trying to defend down on the block. He finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds and a number of plays that turned the game during particular OSU lulls, including a backdoor alley-oop from William Buford.
Buford’s play jumpstarted the Buckeyes on the offensive end. He hit three crucial three-pointers and was hitting with his floater in the lane. He finished with 13 points and was the only other Buckeye in double figures. Ohio State’s defense down the stretch did the rest.
The only other alarming trend this past week for the Buckeyes came at the free throw line. They missed five free throws down the stretch at Northwestern which made the game the final possession nail-biter that it was. Last night, they shot sixty percent from the line, including an uncharacteristic sub 50 night from Sullinger, who was 5 for 11. Hopefully for OSU fans this trend ends this week because we’ve seen the FT line cost teams berths in the final four almost every March and surely the Buckeyes will not survive this upcoming stretch of conference games missing 10 times at the line.
Week That Will Be
at Minnesota – Sunday @ 2:00 PM – ESPN
ESPN is hyping their broadcast of this Super Bowl Sunday matchup at the Barn in Minneapolis. It’s the first of two conference road tests that will push OSU to the limit. Minnesota is ranked 20th in the country but, after an 0-2 week, that will not be the case come Monday…unless they score the upset at home. At 5-5 in the conference, they need a signature win and the undefeated number one ranked team presents that perfect opportunity. Ohio State barely beat the Gophers at home last month, eking out a 3 point win. In Travis Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III, they have the front court size to put up more resistance than Jared Sullinger has seen in conference over the past month.
OSU Player of the Week
Jared Sullinger – 6’9 Freshman F
Yet again, it has to be Sullinger. The freshman is averaging a double-double and carried the team last night on the offensive end. William Buford was the only other notable Buckeye to contribute and often his perimeter shots came off of the double on Sullinger in the post. I’m not sure how he translates to the next level but that is of no moment. Everything OSU does is facilitated by the big man, who claims he will be in Columbus for at least two years.
Around the Big Ten
Michigan State is in free fall. Korie Lucious was dismissed last week and now they have lost four of five. The low point of the season came this week during a 20 point loss to Iowa after an overtime home win against Indiana. The preseason number 2 ranked team in the country, they are now 5-5 in conference and 13-9 overall. It will take a complete turnaround in their final 8 games to make the tournament. Tom Izzo called Wednesday night in Iowa City the most embarrassing performance he can remember in his time as head coach at MSU. Three of those 5 conference wins have also been overtime escapes. It gets tougher this weekend as they go to Wisconsin, where it’s nearly impossible to win at the Kohl Center.
Ohio State at Minnesota – Sunday – 2:00 PM
Michigan State at Wisconsin – Sunday – 1:00 PM
Illinois at Minnesota – Thursday – 8:00 PM
OSU continues its winning ways and stays on the one line in the Newark region. With Duke getting blown out by St. John’s at MSG this week, that region is becoming a more likely landing spot for the Buckeyes. Their date with Quicken Loans arena for the 1st/2nd round is now inevitable. There is still plenty of time to get knocked off the one line but a protected seed is a certainty.
Until next week, happy hoops watching.