Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ohio State 74, South Carolina 66

[recap] [box score]

By this time, I usually like to have my national champion picked. Some years, I have a strong feeling about one team; others, I'm more or less guessing by picking one of two or three options.

I'm not doing it this year, though, because there are just too many possibilities and not enough meaningful ways to differentiate among them. I think there are close to ten teams with a legitimate chance to win the title.

But if you forced me to pick one right now, I'd pick Ohio State.

The reason why goes well beyond the Buckeyes' talent. Sure, they've got one of the best players in the country in Jared Sullinger, an accomplished do-everything wing in William Buford, and a trustworthy point guard in Aaron Craft. Deshaun Thomas (who scored 30 against the Gamecocks) leads a supporting cast that is solid, if not deep. The team plays extremely good defense, and does so without fouling.

But the thing that impresses me most about them is their leadership, one of those intangibles that can make a big difference at the college level. The Buckeys are probably the calmest, most poised team I've seen this year. And while some of that credit goes to Thad Matta, who treats his players more like grown-ups than a lot of college coaches, the kids really should get most of the recognition for it.

What's interesting, too, is that it doesn't come from Buford, the senior who is staking his claim to a big portion of the school record book. It comes from the two sophomores, Craft and Sullinger.

I've watched the Buckeyes on back-to-back Saturday's now; in a loss at Kansas last week and then this game at South Carolina. Against the Jayhawks, Sullinger was on the bench in street clothes, thanks to back spasms. And yet there he was, alongside Craft, demonstratively exhorting his teammates during dead balls and timeouts. They lost that game (as they should without Sullinger against a good team on the road), but that's hardly the point. They went into a tough environment shorthanded, never got rattled, and gave themselves a chance to win the game.

And then today, with Sullinger limited to just a few minutes due to a bruised foot (x-rays were negative) Craft controlled the pace of the game and kept his team poised and in control, even as they trailed at halftime. Late in the game, you could see him joking with Lenzelle Smith Jr, a 30 percent free throw shooter, as Smith prepared to take some crucial free throws. (He hit both.)

I though Ohio State was the best team in the country last year, and I think the Buckeye players think that, too. I think it's a big reason why Sullinger came back. I think they are know that if they go out and play smart, they are usually going to win.

Sullinger's lingering health problems give me pause, as does the fact that they aren't as deep as, say, Syracuse or Connecticut. But it won't surprise me if they're cutting down the nets in March.

1 comment:

  1. I don't always buy into the leadership stuff, but I thought this was interesting as I saw it just after your post. From Seth Davis' column:

    When Jared Sullinger was cleared to play last week after missing his two previous games with a back injury, Thad Matta wanted to start him. Sullinger, however, told Matta he should start junior forward Evan Ravenel because "Evan worked so hard these past two weeks."