They didn’t meet expectations in the regular season or in the conference tournament. They’ve accumulated seven losses and more close calls because of a lack of offensive consistency. This team lacks an identity at times, and their depth remains an issue. When they run up against someone that can guard Jared Sullinger 1-on-1, they’ll probably be going home. In the last two tournaments, Matta’s teams have failed to meet the expectations of their high seeds, and those teams had far more upperclassmen leadership. Their three-point shooting is streaky at best, and they do not get the ball into the post with enough regularity or ease. The Buckeyes won’t make it past the Sweet 16.
This team is hitting its stride. They’ve won 4 out of the last 5, and they needed to execute in two straight games with late game heroics to gain a share of the Big Ten regular season conference crown. They have 7 wins against ranked teams. They’re hungry after missing out on the Big Ten Conference Tournament championship, and they’ve had to work a little harder for everything, an edge that other Matta top teams haven’t had. Few teams have a three-man scoring punch quite like Sullinger, Thomas, and Buford. They’re the most defensively efficient team in the nation, and they defend without fouling. As many shortcomings as they’ve had on offense, a lot of the frustration has come from not knowing who will be the go-to guy during their midseason identity crisis. They still rank 7th in offensive efficiency, and they now collectively know that their team will operate through Jared Sullinger. This team may just win it all.
I figured I’d start with my two conflicting voices, as this is pretty much what’s been going on in my head not just since the bracket was unveiled, but in the weeks leading up to it when I contemplated how far I thought the Buckeyes could go in March Madness. I’ve been saying it almost since day one this season: this Ohio State team has the talent to win the national championship. As the season progressed, however, issues with consistency and leadership led me to believe the Bucks had too many holes on offense to put up six strong showings in a row. Somewhere along that line, William Buford was going to have a bad shooting night, and the Bucks would be going home. But, the recent run to a share of the Big Ten title and trip to the Big Ten Championship Game have gotten the team’s mind right and rekindled my hopes to a certain extent.
When the bracket was unveiled, I was all set to send the Buckeyes packing after the Elite 8, losing to Syracuse. However, yesterday’s events surrounding Syracuse center Fab Melo’s eligibility have certainly changed my mind. Melo, a 7-foot shotblocker is the heart of the Orange 2-3 zone. With him, ‘Cuse has a defender to go 1-on-1 with Sullinger. Without him, that’s not the case anymore. One of the easiest ways to beat the 2-3 zone is with three-point shooting. Problem being the Buckeyes don’t have a lot of it. All five starters will take threes and shoot at 34.7% or higher, but none of those five make at a 40% clip. The Buckeyes just don’t shoot that many threes either, averaging under 5 makes a game with Buford leading the team at 52 made threes in 34 games. Another way to beat the zone? High-low post action. The Buckeyes can do that with Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger. In fact, I envision that Thomas could be a one-man zone wrecking crew in the paint. How much dribble penetration Aaron Craft is able to get would be another determining in factor on who would come out on top in that potential matchup.
The first round against the Loyola (MD) Greyhounds should not be an issue. As some have already pointed out, a potential matchup with 10 seed West Virginia in Pittsburgh would be an unfortunate essential road game. With 7 seed Gonzaga, the Buckeyes may face another big with the ability to 1-on-1 Sullinger in 7-footer Robert Sacre. Florida State is a team built a lot like the Buckeyes on defense first. They’re a very tough three seed that has beat Duke and Carolina twice each. If the Buckeyes lose before getting to Syracuse, this would be the team to knock them out in my mind.
Final verdict? I’m taking the Buckeyes make it out of Boston and to the championship game, defeating the Kansas Jayhawks and losing to the Kentucky Wildcats, the one team even this optimist cannot see how the Bucks can win. Anthony Davis is the best shotblocker in the nation, and he would likely give Sullinger fits at both ends of the floor. Their balance with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Marcus Teague, and Darius Miller all scoring options along with a hungry coach in John Calipari that has made it all the way to the title game twice only to come up short makes them far and away the team to beat.
While I remain optimistic about the Buckeyes’ chances, I realize that only one team will ultimately walk away from the next three weeks happy. There’s a really, really strong chance that team won’t be The Ohio State Buckeyes. I just hope the Buckeyes make a lengthy run and that Jared Sullinger and William Buford are able to go out as the great players they’ve been in Columbus these past two and four years respectively.
(Photo: Michael Conroy/AP)