The Buckeyes’ play in the Big Ten tournament magnified more questions than it answered…about Buford, Sullinger, team play, or did they just run out of gas? And which team will you see in this week’s tournament? Your guess is as good as mine…or anyone’s.
Columbus - A mixed bag of impressions and assumptions from Ohio State’s three-game weekend at the Big Ten Tournament establishes no clear evidence regarding whether the Buckeyes will advance beyond the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen for the first time in five years.
The encouraging signs OSU offered in first- and second-round wins over Purdue and Michigan got wiped off the board Sunday with a 68-64 loss to Michigan State in the championship game.
The ball movement and offensive unselfishness that typified OSU’s play on Friday and Saturday vanished Sunday, leaving several uneasy thoughts to ponder as the second-seeded Buckeyes prepare for a 9:45 p.m. Thursday first-round game against No. 15 Loyola-Maryland in Pittsburgh.
Did Ohio State begin launching ill-advised shots after taking a seven-point second-half lead against MSU because individual agendas crept in, or because the Spartans’ defense stiffened?
Did OSU simply run out of gas because of the demands of the three-games-in-65-hour stretch it endured in Indianapolis, or are the Buckeyes serially unable to hustle back on defense against teams that push tempo?
Can senior William Buford ever shake the game-to-game funk that seemingly prevents him from playing effectively twice in succession?
OSU seemed on the verge of running away from MSU, with a seven-point lead and Draymond Green on the bench, nursing an injury. But instead, the Buckeyes surrendered a 10-point run in less than 90 seconds, fed by two three-point field goals in transition.
Ohio State is abysmal at identifying shooters, and it continues to display a maddening penchant for ignoring center Jared Sullinger at the offensive end when his work inside builds the very lead Ohio State is trying to protect.
Sunday, Sullinger grew frustrated after Buford and Lenzelle Smith launched ill-advised triples, firing a few crazy shots of his own when the Buckeyes lost rhythm and their lead. Hopefully, that was nothing more than Sullinger’s personal desire to outplay former AAU teammate Adreian Payne, who schooled Sullinger in the teams’ first meeting at OSU.
Sullinger, Buford and DeShaun Thomas are all playing for NBA contracts. Thomas is foolish to even be considering a leap to the league after his sophomore season, but he wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake.
There’s no chance Sullinger is returning to Ohio State as a junior, barring a catastrophic injury in the Tournament. He’s been frustrated all season by the uneven treatment he’s received from league officials. Sunday, both of Sullinger’s fouls early in the first half were questionable, particularly the second, on which he set a solid, stable screen on MSU’s Austin Thornton.
Thornton went flying, but it’s not Sullinger’s fault he’s a block of granite and Thornton bounced off like a Super Ball. The screen was completely legal, but official Mike Kitts fell for Thornton’s theatrics.
In the second half, Thornton tried to set a moving screen on OSU’s Aaron Craft at midcourt, leaned in with an elbow that Craft ducked, and wasn’t called for a violation. Official Ted Valentine went mute in plain view of the foul. Later, on that same possession, when the ball should have belonged to OSU, Craft gained both his third and fourth personals.
Breaks like those can take a team out of the NCAA Tournament, through no fault of its own. Ohio State has enough flaws it can’t afford to run into inconsistent whistles.
Sullinger would do well to stop whining when he’s hit with a ridiculous call, because it only invites more.
With West Virginia beckoning in the second-round on Saturday, OSU’s stay could end shy of the Sweet Sixteen.
But judging from this team’s unpredictability, it’s just as likely to still be playing at this time next week.
Bruce Hooley is a former Troy Daily News sports editor. He hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR in Cleveland. Email Bruce at email@example.com Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz