Coming into last night’s matchup in Evanston, the feeling was undeniable that the game, the February crossroads that the Buckeyes were at, the must-win game, hinged upon Jared Sullinger’s broad shoulders. Essentially called out by Coach Thad Matta, coming off an inexplicably aloof performance at home against Wisconsin on Sunday, it was up to #0 to right the ship. That proved to be precisely the case with Sullinger who turned in one of his strongest performances all year and scored the game-winner over a pair of Wildcats with 3.1 seconds remaining to allow the Buckeyes to escape with a 75-73 victory that kept their Big Ten title hopes alive.
Northwestern’s lack of size allowed the Buckeyes to get the ball into the post much easier than they have against top tier opponents in the second half of the conference schedule. Wildcat forward John Shurna covered Sullinger for a good portion of the game, and Sullinger was able to snag every defensive rebound within reach in addition to dominating the offensive glass. Instead of being pushed up the block, Sullinger received the ball on the block and in the middle of the paint, often without even a forearm in his back as is customary. Sully led the team in scoring with 22, adding a season-high 18 rebounds with 11 of those coming on the offensive boards. The Buckeyes as a team dominated the worst rebounding team in the Big Ten on the boards 44-18.
In the first half, it wasn’t just Sullinger that looked like a new player. The entire team was scoring the basketball with surprisingly crisp offense, using lightning quick cross-court reversals against the active, trapping zone defense. While Sullinger’s performance was a return to Big Ten POY-type play, the handiwork of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. were the key supporting efforts, without which the Buckeyes would’ve come up on the wrong side of this one.
Craft was assertive on the offensive end and confident with his outside shot. Hitting a career-high four three pointers and posting 14 points to go with 4 steals, Craft resembled the bold point guard that feared nothing as the Buckeyes hit the home stretch one year ago. Smith Jr. has posted huge games this season at home vs. Indiana and Michigan, but he took his game on the road last night. It was Smith Jr. who handed out a career-high 7 assists, finding Sullinger down low and teammates on the perimeter with zip passes, creating some passing lanes with his offensive output. A positive sign, the Buckeyes assisted on 20 of their 29 field goals. Lenzelle reached double digit scoring for the fourth time this season with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Together, the starting backcourt attacked the trapping Northwestern zone so effectively that Thad Matta elected not to go to Shannon Scott for extended time (4 minutes), and they kept Ohio State afloat with William Buford sitting for the final 12 minutes of the half due to foul trouble.
A lot was going right on the offensive end for OSU in the first 20 minutes, but I go back to how fluid and unstoppable the Buckeyes are when both Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are operating in the post. High-low action with those two against a zone with Thomas’s touch and Sullinger’s strength is nearly unstoppable, and it continues to irritate me that Matta doesn’t force his team to look there much more frequently. In my opinion, a stronger emphasis on the double post attack would stabilize this offense and put Ohio State right back into the conversation for the best teams out there.
As well-oiled as the Buckeyes offense was for most of this game, the Buckeyes were never able to separate from Northwestern, primarily because of senior John Shurna and junior guard Drew Crawford. Shurna had 13 first-half points, pouring in three treys with his awkward shooting motion, keeping the bubble-sitting Wildcats within 10 at the break. The Buckeyes used a mix of Jared Sullinger and smaller players Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson to cover Shurna, but with his range anywhere inside halfcourt, he was able to shake loose multiple times. Crawford was checked by Craft, but he was still able to get to the basket on more than a few instances, leading an early second half run for the purple and white. Northwestern connected on 13-of-27 three point attempts as they benefited from the great equalizer with Shurna and Crawford adding four threes each.
The startling takeaway for future games, and most pressingly, their regular season finale, was the lack of execution in the final minute of the game, with the exception of the Sullinger basket. First, it was Lenzelle Smith Jr. traveling as he was caught off-guard dribbling up the sideline. On a play that could’ve just as easily been called a foul, Northwestern gained possession down 3 with 41 seconds left. On that ensuing possession, Deshaun Thomas rebounded the Reggie Hearn miss, only to turn it over as JerShon Cobb poked it out from behind. On that extra possession, Alex Marcotullio pulled up from beyond the NBA three-point line at the top of the key and tied the game with 7.7 seconds remaining. That set up the final possession for the Bucks tied at 73. Craft did a fantastic job of pushing the ball up the right side of the court, finding Sullinger with a picture-perfect lob that sailed over Cobb, who was fronting Sullinger in the post. Sullinger gathered and finished on the right block over Hearn and Shurna. Matta said postgame, “You saw it. We wanted to see Aaron [Craft] push it. He had three reads, and I’m glad he chose option number one, cause that’s what it was.” With 3.1 seconds and no timeouts left, Shurna pushed the ball up the court and his try for the win inside halfcourt drew iron.
As Sullinger and his teammates celebrated the hard-fought and nearly-squandered win, I couldn’t help but ask the following. Was this Sullinger basket a bonding moment for OSU? Was this scowling, chest-puffed-out version of Jared Sullinger (see above) the one that the Buckeyes need in East Lansing on Sunday afternoon against the Michigan State Spartans? The answer is that, yes, this version of Sullinger is the one required to win the Big Ten and make a tournament run. However, the Buckeyes will need to play a 40-minute game to knock off the Spartans and claim a piece of the Big Ten trophy on Draymond Green’s Senior Day. Do I think the Buckeyes are going to win on Sunday? No, I don’t, but I think it was important for the team to get this win, give themselves a chance, and experience the high intensity environment on Sunday that will only get ratcheted up in Indianapolis and beyond.
(Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP)