Today we welcome the newest member of the WFNY team, Kirk Lammers who will be joining us as a weekend editor and contributing other pieces as well. A graduating senior at The Ohio State University, Kirk knows a few things about the Buckeye basketball team and was willing to jump in and recap today’s action. You can reach him at email@example.com and on twitter at @WFNYKirk
It cannot be overemphasized how much of a psychological advantage the underdog has in a conference tournament atmosphere. The Northwestern Wildcats, with everything to play for, had a flawless game plan, and played about as well as they could, but it still wasn’t enough against an experienced and tested team that seems to be on a mission for the number one overall seed heading into the tournament.
The top-seeded Buckeyes survived frigid shooting, questionable officiating late in regulation, and an A performance from John Shurna to advance to the semifinal tomorrow afternoon with a 67-61 overtime victory. Ohio State will face the winner of the 4-5 game between Illinois and Michigan.
Lately, Buckeye fans have heard a lot of talk about how Jared Sullinger’s draft stock is falling. Sure, his scoring is down, and he’s had some downright pitiful performances from the field, today included, but what people fail to understand is that Sullinger is on a complete team. Because of that, he takes a back seat to whomever has the hot hand most games from three point range, and lately only when the team truly needs a basket is #0 called upon. Today was a perfect case of that.
Sullinger made just 2-of-12 from the field today, but his most important contribution came in overtime, where he converted all 10 of his free throw attempts. Sullinger touched the ball on nearly every Ohio State possession in the extra session, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In the process, Wildcats Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic fouled out with Mirkovic slamming his mouthpiece to the floor in disgust for a technical and his fifth personal. Sullinger’s final line was 20 points, 18 rebounds, 16-of-18 from the line in going the 45-minute distance.
Today had an almost identical feel to that one-point escape in Evanston earlier this season. The main difference? Ohio State shot just 32% from the floor compared to a 57% effort back in January. In Evanston, the Wildcats limited Ohio State possessions. Today in Indianapolis, they limited OSU’s made shots. Other Buckeyes in addition to Sully struggled shooting, including William Buford (3-for-14, 7 points) and Jon Diebler (1-for-5 on 3 pointers). While Buford struggled the entire game, Diebler took the ball to the basket and converted on his free throws to gather 13 points.
The Bucks would not have been close to advancing, however, without the play of freshman point guard Aaron Craft. Craft came up with a strong performance (17 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks), highlighted by a personal 7-0 run to close the half and give Ohio State the five point halftime lead. As always, Craft’s defensive effort doesn’t get enough credit. He helped hold Northwestern’s Michael “Juice” Thompson to just 15 points after he dropped 35 on Minnesota 24 hours earlier.
I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t address the sequence of “questionable” calls that gave Northwestern some momentum at the end of regulation. First, Jared Sullinger was called for an offensive foul that I feel was a tough call to make. Sullinger was wearing purple for most of the day with a defender draped all over him, holding, shoving, and grabbing. Next, Aaron Craft was called for a block on the other end that was much more of a charge than Sullinger’s was. Finally and most importantly, the Wildcats benefited from a made three pointer that clearly came after the shot clock had expired. The late Alex Marcotullio trey gave the Wildcats a 52-51 lead with 2:09 to play. To the officials’ credit, however, they came through and eventually started calling the fouls for Sullinger that had been occurring the entire game.
Northwestern’s four corners offensive style allows them to stay close by limiting offensive opportunities for an offensively explosive team such as OSU. Head Coach Bill Carmody deserves recognition for a well though out game plan that the team stuck with.
Thad Matta and staff deserve a tip of the cap as well, though, for two key decisions in my mind. First, Matta elected not to call a timeout with the shot clock off and a tie game in the final moments of regulation. Instead, the Bucks got the ball into Sullinger with about three seconds to play. A fadeaway from just outside the key didn’t connect, but they got the ball to their clutch player in a position to succeed, much like they did in the first matchup, where Sullinger converted 1-of-2 free throws for the go-ahead point. The only mistake was not getting the ball to him a second or two earlier.
Next, the coaching staff clearly changed the offensive tone in overtime, pounding the ball into the interior with Sullinger and not taking no for an answer. There aren’t too many teams that have the luxury of a post presence like Sullinger, and sometimes it’s easy to forget about him with the scoring that the Buckeye guards provide. As the Buckeyes go deeper into the postseason, they must not forget about Sullinger and his ability to draw fouls and finish underneath the hoop.
We’ll see how much of a toll fatigue takes on the Buckeyes tomorrow afternoon. Both Sullinger and Diebler played all 45 minutes, and five guys logged 37 minutes or more. Dallas Lauderdale played only the first five minutes of a game where his style of play was not the best matchup, and Deshaun Thomas added 10 minutes due to David Lighty’s foul trouble. I will say this, though, if anyone’s team is prepared to log heavy minutes on back-to-back days, it’s Thad Matta’s.