The instant Jared Sullinger opted to spurn the NBA, Ohio State became a Final Four contender.
The Buckeyes big man could have been a high lottery pick a year ago, but he decided to come back to school -- and while he hasn't had the season that many anticipated, he's gotten Ohio State to the Final Four. There was the back injury that slowed him down early in the season and forced him to miss two games -- including one at Kansas. Then came the foot injury which limited him to six minutes against South Carolina. His numbers are nearly identical to that of his freshman campaign, but life has been vastly different without dead-eye shooter Jon Diebler and glue guy/leader David Lighty.
These guys aren't the same team as a year ago. They were supposed to dominate the Big Ten this season. That didn't happen -- as the Buckeyes shared the league regular-season crown with Michigan State and Michigan and then lost to the Spartans in the conference tournament title contest.
But Sully looks healthy now, he's got one of the best point guards in America -- and sophomore Deshaun Thomas has been as effective as anyone in this tournament on the offensive end. Now it's time for William Buford to get back on track if the Buckeyes are to cut down the nets in New Orleans.
Why they'll win it: The Buckeyes have one of the best big men in the country in Jared Sullinger, an elite point guard in Aaron Craft who defends and possesses all the intangibles -- and a couple of wing scorers in William Buford and Deshaun Thomas. They do a nice job as a team moving the ball, Sullinger passes well out of double-teams and these guys defend well as a group. They play unselfish and their top four guys can matchup with just about anyone.
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Why they won't: Every team they'll go up against has an answer for Sullinger. Sure, he's big, strong and skilled. But Kansas' Thomas Robinson is strong and ultra-athletic. If they get past Kansas, it'll be either Anthony Davis (Kentucky) or Gorgui Dieng (Louisville). Ohio State also can't afford to have senior guard William Buford continue to slump offensively. He needs to get going and make shots.
Player to watch: Aaron Craft - There's no one in the country who plays perimeter defense in the same manner. He's relentless guarding on the ball -- and also so smart off-the-ball. He gets his hands on seemingly everything -- and also sets up his teammates and is the team leader. However, what Craft will need to do it be more assertive and look for his own shot -- especially if one of Sullinger, Buford or Thomas aren't making shots. If those three guys are on their game on the offensive end of the floor, Craft can get away with deferring. However, he'll need to make a couple shots, at least, to keep the defense honest.
Best off the bench: This is an issue. There's really no one that coach Thad Matta counts on off the bench. Evan Ravenel is a Boston College transfer who spells Sullinger and could be key if the big man gets into foul trouble again -- as he did against Syracuse. Athletic freshman Sam Thompson averaged a dozen minutes in league play. We'll go with freshman point guard Shannon Scott, who often comes into the game and allows Craft to play off the ball for a spell. However, there are no standouts coming off the bench for the Buckeyes.
One guy soaring: Deshaun Thomas -- The 6-foot-7 sophomore has been sensational on the offensive end and can ill-afford to have an off-night for the Buckeyes. Thomas, who dropped about 20 pounds this past offseason, is averaging 16.1 points this season and can score from just about anywhere. He has 87 points in the four tournament games -- and erupted for 20 in the first half against Cincinnati.
|The Buckeyes are considered the second-most likely to win the title after Kentucky. (US Presswire)|
One guy slumping: William Buford -- The smooth veteran has made just 4 of his last 20 shots from the field over the past two games and has not made more than 50 percent of his shots in a game since the regular-season finale on March 4 against Michigan State. Matta needs Buford, one of the top scorers in school history, to get going against Kansas -- in a big way.
Notable stat: William Buford has 1,971 career points in his career, just 20 shy of passing Jerry Lucas for third in Ohio State history. Dennis Hopson ranks first on the Buckeyes all-time list with 2,096.
Last time in Final Four: 2007 -- Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook led the Buckeyes to the national title game, where they lost to the defending national champion Florida Gators.
Last time won a national championship: 1960 -- It's the lone national title in men's hoops that the Buckeyes have won. Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek crushed California, 75-55, in the championship game. Four members of this team are in the Hall of Fame: Lucas and Havlicek as players and Fred Taylor and Bob Knight as coaches. Taylor, the coach of that 1960 squad, died in 2002.
All-time starting five: G: Jim Jackson; G: Evan Turner; F: John Havlicek; F: Clark Kellogg; C: Jerry Lucas
Final thought: When Sullinger decided to return to Ohio State, this is one of the primary reasons: To get to a Final Four and have a chance to win a national title. The Buckeyes team, the one that lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 a year ago, was more talented. They lost David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. However, this one has a chance because it has an elite low-post player, a terrific point guard and a couple of guys that can put the ball in the basket. If these guys are clicking, they can beat anyone. However, they need to avoid foul trouble and make sure Buford and Thomas are making shots.