The Buckeye player with the greatest ceiling and opportunity to improve the most in this NCAA tournament is unquestionably Deshaun Thomas. Tonight, Thomas was unguardable, throwing in a career-high 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, as the Buckeyes solidly controlled this game in beating Loyola Maryland 78-59 in second round tournament action. The Buckeyes got to the line early and often, controlled the boards, and they were able to disrupt the Greyhound attack by turning them over and converting at the other end. While OSU was never in danger of losing, the team seems to know that the same performance on Saturday may not be enough.
Loyola Maryland started out with a 5-1 lead, coming out aggressive on the offensive end and blocking multiple shots on the defensive end. The Buckeyes quickly squashed that mini-run and grabbed their hardhat, going to work in the post. Both Jared Sullinger and Thomas were able to get good post position, control the offensive glass, and finish inside. Sullinger took 5 of the first 6 Buckeye shots, including a three point make, as they made it a point to get him involved early. The fouls began to pile up for the Greyhounds, as they fouled 14 times in that first half and had two players with 4 fouls each. The Buckeyes were able to build a double-digit lead at the break despite shooting just 34% because of their 15-of-18 clip at the foul line. They also grabbed 12 offensive rebounds (7 from their dynamic duo). Most impressive of all, they turned 7 Loyola turnovers into 12 points.
In the second half, the Buckeyes didn’t continue to dump it down in the post as much as they had before. Jared Sullinger did not score in the second half, but luckily, Thomas picked up the slack. Deshaun made 8 of 10 shots on his way to 17 second half points. Loyola alternated between man and zone, and when they zoned up, Thomas was a one-man zone-buster. The sophomore forward made things happen from elbow to elbow in the top half of the paint, hitting shots and grabbing offensive boards. “I was just knocking them down, I was feeling it,” Thomas said. Thomas has scored 19 or more in 7 of the last 9 games, and if the Buckeyes get that Deshaun Thomas, it takes pressure off Sullinger and makes the Buckeyes more diverse and more likely to stick around for a while. The relative ease with which Thomas can get shots, both inside and outside, makes him more of a go-to option than Sullinger when the First Team All-Big Ten center has a physical defender. The Buckeyes had 38 points in the paint, and Thomas was the leader in that area.
The Greyhounds played hard for 40 minutes, and they didn’t go away quietly when the Buckeyes cut the engines a little early. Loyola Maryland’s 6’7″ forward Erik Etherly battled Sullinger all game, leading the team with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Loyola had some success with a full-court press, turning the Buckeyes over on a few possessions, though it was just as much Ohio State’s own mental miscues. The Bucks turned it over 18 times compared to 12 turnovers for Loyola. The big difference in those figures was the Buckeyes turning their 12 forced turnovers into 21 points, while Loyola came up with just 15 points. LUM shot only 35 percent, and the Buckeyes were disruptive on defense, matching Loyola’s 8 blocks (5 from Sullinger) and 6 steals (3 from Craft).
The most important takeaway point from this game is that the Buckeyes seem to be aware that this level of play just won’t cut it in future matchups. In some respects, that’s why I’m glad this wasn’t a typical 2-15 blowout. This Buckeye team doesn’t seem to handle overwhelming success well, and they need to keep their edge. Sullinger postgame said, “I think it was a wake up call, after what Gonzaga did to West Virginia. If we come out the way we played today… and play the way we played, we’re definitely going to be packing our bags and going home.” He’s right about that in that Gonzaga certainly has the firepower to knock out the Bucks. Coach Matta followed Sullinger’s sentiment up, “We did some things that were very uncharacteristic of how we played the last couple, which were probably more mental. Our turnovers were very detrimental to the flow of our offense. A lot of them were unforced.” He later added, “We made our runs, and then we relaxed.”
Next up for the Buckeyes is the 7th seed in the East, Gonzaga. The Bulldogs blew out West Virginia in impressive fashion, and big man Robert Sacre is a guy that I expect to guard Sullinger 1-on-1 for extended stretches. Aaron Craft will need to be tough with freshman point and leading scorer Kevin Pangos when the two teams square off in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon at 2:45 PM.