Ohio State keeps its Buck-eye on the national championship

By Etheria Modacure

The loss of Evan Turner to the NBA draft in 2010 didn’t deflate the Ohio State University Buckeyes this season. In fact, the Buckeyes improved.  On Feb. 4, they were the single remaining undefeated team in  NCAA Division I men’s basketball.

With a veteran team consisting of four seniors and three juniors, the Buckeyes have been able to win games with one of the better freshmen in the country Jared Sullinger, who leads all NCAA freshmen in scoring and rebounding, and a versatile freshman player coming off the bench Aaron Craft.

The Buckeyes won their first 23 games and 10 within the Big Ten conference by outscoring opponents and notching tight victories on the road. Ohio State won its last close contest against Northwestern University on Jan. 29, 58-57.

Ohio State was the No. 4 ranked team in the Associated Press preseason polls and  were the No. 1 team in the country after Feb. 4.

The Buckeyes have depth throughout their lineup and the leadership from senior guards Jon Diebler and David Lighty and senior forward Dallas Lauderdale has this team looking to contend for its first national championship since 1960.

“The seniors [for Ohio State] are very good,” said University of Illinois Coach Bruce Weber. “With Lighty, Diebler, [junior guard William] Buford and Lauderdale, they know their roles, they want to win and they seem very focused.”

The Fighting Illini were the last Big Ten team to go undefeated this long into a season when they started 29-0 in the 2004-2005 campaign. Ironically, the Buckeyes ended that streak before it reached 30 games.

Though the Buckeyes have juniors and seniors on its team, Ohio State has been led by Sullinger, a freshman with great presence and awareness in the post. He is the brother of former Buckeye J.J. Sullinger, who was on the last Ohio State team to reach the national championship game in 2007.

Sullinger first garnered national attention after his 40-point effort against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis on Dec. 9. Standing at 6-foot 9-inches, Sullinger has the size to complement the Buckeyes other forward, Lauderdale.

The Buckeyes have swept the Big Ten conference’s Freshmen Player of the Week with Sullinger and guards Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, winning all of the first 11 awards this season.

“The two freshmen [Craft and Sullinger], the maturity of those guys is just amazing,” Weber said.

Craft is the fourth best passer in the Big Ten with an average of 4.82 assists per game and is the only freshman ranked in the top 15 of this category in the conference.

Sullinger leads all freshmen in Division I with 18 points per game and a shooting percentage of 57.7 percent. He was named Big Ten Freshmen Player of the Week 10 times through Jan. 31 and is second among his class with nine double-doubles. Sullinger posts 9.9 rebounds per game, which is third in the country for freshmen.

“[The Buckeyes] seem to believe in Sullinger,” said Northwestern University Coach Bill Carmody. “Sullinger is a real good player, [an] inside force and also a very good passer. He’s not selfish and I think that kind of balance just helps the team.”

Ohio State isn’t just dominant on the offensive side of the ball, averaging 78.4 points per game, which is 22nd in Division I. They also limit opponents to just 57.5 points, which is seventh in the NCAA this season.

“They don’t get credit for their defense and they don’t get credit for their toughness,” said Purdue University Coach Matt Painter. “That happens sometimes when you have a lot of talent.”

Painter said Diebler, Lighty and Buford all do a great job of defending and their contributions have been often overshadowed this season. Both Lighty and Diebler have more than 25 steals this season.

There hasn’t been an undefeated team throughout a season en route to a national championship since the 1976-1977 Indiana Hoosiers, who were coached by Bobby Knight. Knight was also on the last Buckeyes team to win a national championship.

Matta said when his team looks at its upcoming schedule, it humbles the players immediately because they acknowledge the challenges ahead.

Last season’s Buckeyes team lost in the Sweet 16 with Naismith Award winner Turner leading Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven’t missed a step this season. Matta credited the team’s strength to the experiences the upperclassmen have shared with the freshmen.

“It’s always difficult when you lose a great player,” Matta said. “Fortunately, we’ve got four returning [players who] have a real good understanding.

They’ve been in big games and conference races before. They’ve done a very solid job of helping the young guys [with] how we do things. They’ve left a lasting impression on those kids.”