Wednesday, March 14

Buford key to Buckeye title run

The Ohio St Buckeyes just completed another stellar regular season under Coach Thad Matta, finishing 27-7 overall with a 13-5 mark in Big Ten play. Before we look ahead to the Buckeyes’ chances in the NCAA tournament (beginning tomorrow with Ohio St tipping off at approx. 9:50 against 15th seeded Loyola (MD)), let’s briefly peek back at the season that was.

Ohio St came out of the gate like gangbusters, cruising to an 8-0 mark including a victory over Florida and a 85-63 drubbing of Duke in Value City, in what was in my opinion the most impressive one-game performance of any team all season long. Then Jared Sullinger injured his ankle, and the Bucks had their first slip of the year against a fantastic Kansas team on the road in a game where OSU was just simply overmatched without Sully, especially in the post against Naismith Award candidate Thomas Robinson. Jared missed some or all of the next four games, but Ohio St had no problems closing out non-conference play without him against sub-par competition.

The Bucks kicked off conference play with a 33-point shellacking of Northwestern before falling to an at-the-time undefeated Indiana team in Bloomington on New Year’s Eve. OSU bounced back with easy wins over the dregs of the conference (Nebraska, Iowa), then were victimized on the road yet again, this time by Illinois (before they sucked) on the back of Brandon Paul’s ridiculous career night consisting of 43 points on 8/10 three-point shooting, including the game-clincher with 30 seconds left to play.

Following the Illini loss, Ohio St went on a month-long stretch of playing their best basketball of the season. They won their next six games by an average of 14 points, including quality wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, michigan, and Purdue. At this point Ohio St was looking nearly unbeatable, that is until they welcomed Michigan St to Value City with a 39-game home win steak on the line. Despite his impressive stat line of 17 points and 16 rebounds, Sullinger looked a bit out of sync as he turned the ball over 10 times and (along with DeShaun Thomas) couldn’t seem to figure out how to stop the MSU big man trio of Draymond Green, Derrick Nix, and Adreian Payne.

The rest of the year followed this pattern, with Ohio St going back and forth from playing dominating to just solid basketball. Solid wasn’t good enough in losses to michigan and Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes capped off the regular season in stellar fashion with a win over Michigan St in East Lansing to finish with a share of the Big Ten title.

Ohio St drew the short straw and was seeded third in the Big Ten tourney, giving them a tough route to be crowned champions for the third consecutive year. (Drawing straws could literally be the way they decided the standings for all I know, as Ohio St, Michigan St and michigan all split the season series with each other. I have no clue how the tie-breaker was determined.)

The Buckeyes sailed past Purdue in the first round before just putting the boots to that school up north in the semis. I mean, it was just comical. tim hardaway jr made the wolverines’ first shot of the game, and then it was ALL Ohio St. Jared Sullinger scored the first 10 for the Bucks (he was in straight BEAST MODE all game) and OSU never looked backed. They had a 20-point lead at halftime, put it in cruise control in the second half, and still came out with a 22-point win. Boy do I love embarrassing michigan. The conference final was as expected, with Ohio St matching up with a familiar foe in Michigan St. The Spartans took the rubber match in a really hard-fought and well-played game. I’ve never had anything negative to say about Tom Izzo or his bunch, and this was no different. Ohio St played a fine game, but was just not quite good enough as MSU was the slightly better team on this day.

So to sum up, Ohio St’s 2011-12 regular season went about exactly as I expected it to. They stayed in the Top 10 and National Title contention all year, with a few slips against tough teams (mostly on the road) sprinkled in among many impressive wins. Sullinger had a slight drop off from his POY-type freshman season a year ago, but was still fantastic - averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while shooting 54% from the field and hitting at a notable 76% clip from the stripe. Aaron Craft was the smart, do-it-all point guard while continuing to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation (as evidenced by his Big Ten Defensive Play of the Year award). The only slight surprise in my book was Tank Thomas surpassing Will Buford as the team’s second scoring option. These guys are pretty much 2 and 2a behind Sully, but Thomas averaged slightly more points per game than Buf while shooting at a much higher percentage.

Which brings us to where we stand now, ready to kick off one of the most exciting and entertaining couple of weeks on the sports calendar. Ohio St earned the #2 seed in the East region, and as I stated at the beginning will face off with the Greyhounds of Loyola (MD) in the first round on Thursday evening. The Bucks open in Pittsburgh, PA, then the East’s semifinals and final will be played in Boston, so they won’t have to travel much until (hopefully) New Orleans in the Final Four.

Once Ohio St disposes of Loyola, they face the winner of #7 Gonzaga and #10 West Virginia. OSU was not granted any favors with this matchup, as I feel both of those teams were drastically under-seeded. West Virginia poses the most problems for the Buckeyes, as they have struggled with teams highlighting quality big men all year while WVU features All-American Kevin Jones (20/11 per game) and Deniz Kilicli’s beard. While West Virginia will have some haters in Pittsburgh, it will also be a short commute for the Mountaineer faithful. Whether it be Dub-V or the Zags, Ohio St will have their hands full in Round 2.

Should Ohio St make it to the Sweet 16, their most likely matchup would be with either 6th-seeded Cincinnati or #3 Florida St, two teams peaking at the right time. Syracuse claims the number 1 seed in the East, but the loss of star big man Fab Melo hurts them significantly. The biggest threats to the ’Cuse’s Elite Eight run are #5 Vanderbilt and #4 Wisconsin, both possible foes for Ohio St in the East Regional Final.

It’s easy to overanalyze these brackets when they first come out, but as Ali Farokmanesh and many others have showed us - you really have no idea how things are going to play out once the pumpkin is up in the air. Not to mention that there are dozens of quality teams in this tournament, so eventually you’re going to have to go through some studs in order to be the last team standing.

Now that I’m about to wrap things up and haven’t even touched on the title of the piece yet, I’d like to look at some keys for Ohio St to be cutting down the nets in the Big Easy three weeks from now. Obviously, Jared Sullinger is the focal point of this team and he needs to be at the top of his game for the Buckeyes to have a chance. When he’s on the court, I have no doubt he can reach his typical 18/10 line, or even a 25/15-type game when he goes into "angry-black-man-yell"form. The crucial point there being "when he’s on the court." Sully rarely battled foul trouble last season, but has struggled with it at times this year, which is probably the main cause of his slight decline. The problem with Jared’s fouls is that they’re usually not aggressive defensive fouls while attempting to block shots, but dumb fouls like sliding in to take charges or moving screens 25 feet from the basket. Evan Ravenel has done a fine job filling in for Sullinger when he has to hit the bench, but you certainly can’t count on him to win any games for you in a tight situation if Sully’s not on the floor.

As important as Sullinger and his staying out of foul trouble is for the Buckeyes, I think the vital aspect to Ohio St’s run will be the play of Will Buford. Buford has had a fine senior season, averaging nearly 15 points a game en route to climbing to sixth on Ohio St’s all-time scoring list. The problem is that he isn’t great at getting to the basket and basically relies on his jump shooting - which at times can be impeccable but he can also go cold and shoot 2-16 like he did against Kentucky in last year’s Sweet 16.

I’ve been saying basically the same thing about Buf all year - that I’ve just been waiting for him to step up and take over a game. Be a senior leader, put the team on his back and say "I’m not going to let us lose this game." I patiently waited for him to do it all season, and frustratingly watched as I (unsuccessfully) waited for him to do it in the loss at michigan. I guess I wanted an Evan Turner-esque moment, and I finally got it in the regular season finale against Michigan St when Buford dropped 25 on the Spartans, including the game-winner in the final second.

It might be unfair of me to put this kind of pressure on Buford. Maybe he’s simply not as talented as ET (I mean, who is?) and he can’t possibly live up to the expectations I have set for him. While that is a very real possibility, it does not bode well for Buckeye fans if that’s true. Because they don’t have the ball in their hands enough, it’s hard for big men to take over a game. If Ohio St is in a close call late in the game in the coming weeks, it will be difficult for the Bucks to work solely through Sullinger. Someone else will need to step up and knock down some shots, and I’m banking (read: praying) that William Buford can be that guy.


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