So much for flying under the radar. After being overshadowed by North Carolina and Kentucky in the early part of the season, the #2 Buckeyes made a bold statement on national television against the third ranked (fourth in the Coaches’ Poll) Blue Devils at The Schott. The quartet of Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas combined for 76 points and shot just under 60% as the Buckeyes were unselfish and relentless in smashing the Dukies 85-63 to put everyone on notice that this team is a national title contender.
The key factor in this game was from the tip, the Buckeyes created matchup problems for Duke, they repeatedly exploited them, and they were patient and calculated in their approach while remaining aggressive and feeding off the crowd. So many times I’ve watched the basketball teams I follow be forced into altering not just their lineups but also what they do well in order to adjust to the other team’s style. It was refreshing to have the tables turned and see Duke have to try some different lineups to slow the Buckeyes down.
From tipoff, the atmosphere in The Schott was electric and the Buckeyes fueled that fire with a 11-0 start led by five from Aaron Craft as he forced the issue and controlled the tempo. Jared Sullinger imposed his will from the start on the interior against Duke junior Mason Plumlee. The Buckeye big man was able to draw two first half fouls on Mason, and he was forced to sit, returning as Coach K gambled with his team down by double digits. Duke did bounce back from the initial Buckeye sprint with a 10-0 run of their own led by freshman guard Austin Rivers. Matta chose to throw a mix of defenders at the 6’4″ Rivers, including Buford, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Jordan Sibert, opting to go with taller guards over the defensive stopper Aaron Craft.
The key to the Buckeyes’ second run, the one that would propel them to the blowout victory, was Deshaun Thomas. Not one person on the Duke squad could stop the 6’7″ forward inside or outside. Part of what makes Deshaun such a dynamic scoring threat is the fact that he will put up a shot, anywhere, anytime. With his length, range, and knack for rebounding, he makes shots that no one else on the team would even dream about. With 7:47 in the first half, Thomas scored his first basket of the game. At halftime, Thomas beat the first half buzzer with a right mid-block jumper to push his point total to 13. Continuing into the second half, DT poured in 12 straight points for Ohio State, and by that point, the Bucks were up 20. When Craft can keep opponents honest by hitting open jumpers (three 3-pointers made tonight) and Thomas adds a fourth scorer to the Sullinger/Buford attack, the Buckeyes aren’t going to get beat. For all the punchlines about Thomas having never seen a shot he didn’t like, he was a conduit for making the extra pass tonight, and his shot selection is getting better every game. Ohio State assisted on 18 of their 35 field goals, led by Craft’s 8 and Buford’s 4.
Sullinger led the team with 21 points and 8 rebounds, and Buford added 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. The consistent inside-out threat of these two will propel the Buckeyes to a lot of victories. The Plumlees and Kelly are regarded as formidable interior defenders, and Sullinger put up similar stats as he has against the Valpos and Wright States of college basketball. He was able to stay out of early foul trouble, which allowed him to play more than just dummy defense after the half. He was a large part of the Buckeyes’ rebounding advantage of 32-23 (26-14 at one point before garbage time). Buford’s shot selection has improved over the early season, and he turned in a star performance tonight. The Buckeyes shot 61% in the first half, and I wasn’t convinced they could keep that pace up. Yet, the team finished shooting 59% from the field, connecting on 8-of-14 threes from four different players. Duke threw a late first half zone at the Buckeyes, but with the scarlet and gray shooting the lights out, it was ineffective.
The lone bright spot in this one for the Blue Devils was Rivers, who took that previously mentioned slew of Buckeye defenders and carved them up by driving in the lane throughout the game. Rivers led Duke with 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The Dukies failed to get another run going mainly because the rest of their guards (Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, and Tyler Thornton) shot 5-of-17 for 11 points. Matta’s team chose to leave these players open in the corners and force them to make shots. It paid off time and time again, and the only other Blue Devil that made a second half scoring spurt was Mason Plumlee with 16 points and 8 boards. Duke big man Ryan Kelly, averaging 14.6 points per game this season, joined Dawkins and Thornton in going scoreless, as he missed two shots in only 15 minutes. Kelly was a victim of the Thomas matchup and saw limited time because of him.
The scariest part if you’re not an Ohio State fan? I don’t think this team has scratched the surface of its potential. No freshman played meaningful minutes in this one. While that may seem like a bad thing, I think that by season’s end either soon-to-be-reinstated forward LaQuinton Ross or guard Shannon Scott will slide into the rotation and provide a scoring threat off the bench. Amir Williams can also help on the defensive end during the Big Ten season if and when Sullinger and Evan Ravenel get into foul trouble. For now, Matta’s seven man rotation remains for big games, but I for one hope that expands by the time they hit the Big Ten season.
The Bucks have one tune-up game against Texas-Pan American on Saturday at noon before a long break for Finals week and their trip to Lawrence, Kansas to take on the Jayhawks.
(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)