It wasn’t a polished performance, there were defensive lapses, offensive holes, and there wasn’t uninterrupted viewing on ESPN2, but what the third ranked Buckeyes did do last night was survive their first true early season test. The Bucks rallied after falling behind by 8 early in the first half to take a 18-point lead in the second half, led by William Buford’s shooting and closed out by Aaron Craft’s toughness, as Ohio State topped #8 Florida 81-74 to move to 2-0 on the season.
Things did not go OSU’s way at the outset. Gator junior forward Erik Murphy drilled three early three pointers and behind that effort, Florida led 14-6 six minutes in. The Bucks gave up 6 first half trey balls in all as their bigger lineup with either starter Deshaun Thomas or reserve Evan Ravenel had trouble closing out on shooters, allowing open looks.
On offense, the Buckeyes looked impatient and flustered. Ironically, no one played that part more at the outset than the lone senior Buford. At the same time, Buford both kept Ohio State in the game with his made jumpers and held them back from generating a true offensive flow to pull away from Florida. In my view, there’s almost no excuse for Sullinger not to touch the ball on every possession. When Buford gets it on the wing, he rarely find an open man and has the shoot-first mentality. However, Buford was the catalyst of the Buckeye run in the second half, scoring 9 points in less than four minutes and helping to extend the lead to its largest margin (18). William finished as the leading scorer with 21 points on 7-of-15 from the field, adding 6 boards and 3 assists. Ravenel added five straight points in that 27-14 run as well.
Early, when the game could have easily slipped away from Ohio State, their leader got to work in the paint and at the line. Jared Sullinger turned in a workman effort, posting 16 points and 6 rebounds, while virtually being ignored on the offensive end in the second half. The sophomore big converted all eight of his foul shots and was in good position on defense until picking up his third foul caused him to lapse a bit underneath the hoop. Sully faced an almost constant double team, which visibly affected his ability to get to the block and punish the opponent. Jared still got to the charity stripe by going up strong and fighting for what position he could get. As he did last year, Sullinger realized that his passing out of the double was vital, and the big guy chipped in three assists. The best one of these came on a beautiful cut to the basket by guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Meanwhile, Coach Billy Donovan in addition to doubling Sully made the decision to set picks on Aaron Craft at the top of the key on nearly every play. With the pick and roll action and subsequent pick and rolls from the wing that often involved either Thomas or Ravenel, Florida hoped to keep Craft fighting through screens and unable to play helpside defense and force turnovers. It worked very well for most of the first half, but eventually, the tenacity of Craft broke through and the sophomore point from Findlay turned up the intensity down the stretch. Craft finished the game strong offensively, taking the ball almost exclusively in his hands, converting 5 of 8 free throws and handing out 7 assists to go with his 13 points and 3 steals. Craft’s defense in part held Florida senior point guard Erving Walker to just 4 points, making his first basket of the game with 4:38 to go.
Deshaun Thomas is always an interesting study in shot selection and binge scoring. Deshaun missed his first three shots, then made 4 of his next 7 shots as he went to work on the offensive glass and in the post. The sophomore hit one three, but he converted all six of his free throws and got better at defending the pick and roll as the game progressed. If Matta can get the sometimes aloof Thomas to buy in on the defensive end, the sky is the limit for both Thomas and the Bucks.
We all know Thad Matta likes to go with a short bench, and despite the fact that players 6-11 on his roster are very close in talent level, he made a decision to go primarily with sophomore guard Jordan Sibert and junior transfer forward/center Evan Ravenel off the bench. Freshman point Shannon Scott also saw limited action, but this was only after Aaron Craft quickly picked up two personal fouls with less than three minutes before halftime. Sophomore J.D. Weatherspoon and freshman Amir Williams did not see the floor. I expect the rotation to be fluid throughout the year because of Ohio State’s depth, and in time, I anticipate Matta extending to a 8-9 man rotation.
Ohio State shot 47% for the game, but made their living at the foul line with 27-of-34 makes (79%). Florida kept it close with a whopping 11 three pointers, though three of those came in the final minute with the score out of reach. OSU was just 4-of-15 from three point range, and they were out-rebounded 34-25. Florida turned the ball over an eye-popping 16 times compared to 7 TOs for the Bucks.
The Buckeyes’ next game is against Jackson State at home on Friday night.
(Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)