Buckeyes Expect Gators to Challenge Their Mental Toughness
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A year ago, Ohio State’s men’s basketball team went 34-3, including 24-straight wins to start the season.
They really were the one dominant team in college basketball during the regular season, and in many ways, it started with an 18-point victory down in Gainesville.
The then-fifth-ranked Buckeyes had fallen behind the 10th-ranked Florida Gators 41-38 at the half in their second game of the season. They had not played the kind of defense Thad Matta expects out of his team—especially one that returned four starters from their Sweet 16 run the year before.
The Buckeyes also added the National High School Player of the Year in Jared Sullinger, but it was their other freshman who impressed Matta the most in the first road game of his college career.
Aaron Craft is all smiles after OSU's win over Florida last season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I think it was his poise. He was stoic. He showed no signs of being a freshman in his first road game,” Matta said Monday of point guard Aaron Craft.
“And his ability to do what we were asking him to do, and do it at the level he did it. That's probably what stood out the most. I was very, very pleased with his performance.”
Craft came off the bench to score seven points and dish out five assists in 29 minutes, but it was his ability to break Billy Donovan’s full court press that helped the Buckeyes rally to outscore the Gators 55-34 in the second half.
“He probably doesn’t get enough recognition for his quickness,” Donovan said Monday on the eve of his rematch with Matta and the Buckeyes in Columbus.
“He’s a tough kid and another guy I enjoy watching play. The thing that people don’t talk about is that he was on the All-Defense team in the Big Ten. He’s a great defender and great with his hands to come up with a lot of steals.”
The gritty point guard out of Findlay, Ohio did an excellent job of corralling Florida’s then-junior point guard Erving Walker. The speedy 5-8 guard out of Brooklyn did score 15 points in 34 minutes, but he also had seven of the Gators’ 18 turnovers during Ohio State’s 93-75 win at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.
“It obviously helped me out, just gave me that much more confidence in myself,” said Craft, who went on to become one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten; leading the conference in steals as a freshman.
Sullinger led the way offensively with 26 points and 10 rebounds, but the Buckeyes also got 26 points from senior David Lighty and 14 from Jon Diebler. They won’t have either of those players Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) when they take the court at Value City Arena.
“This is really going to be a good test of where this basketball team stands,” Sullinger said.
“It’s really going to help us develop who can be out there and who we cannot be out there.”
Ohio State is ranked No. 3 in the country despite losing three important seniors—Lighty, Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale—from the team that lost to Kentucky on a last-second shot in the Sweet 16.
They return Sullinger and senior William Buford—two of the top players in the Big Ten, if not the country—but the only other guy on the team who played more than 10 minutes a game last season is Craft. Buford is the only senior. Everyone is else either a freshman or sophomore. That includes both Craft and Sullinger.
They are joined in the starting lineup by fellow sophomores Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith, which means the Buckeyes will be counting on some inexperienced players to play important minutes for them against the No. 8-ranked Gators.
“It’s going to be an eye-opening experience to see how everyone is going to handle themselves,” Craft said Monday.
“I have a lot of confidence in them. They have come in willing to be coached and willing to listen. They come in every day wanting to get better. We know they can come out there and, as long as they relax and play within themselves, they’re going to get done whatever needs to get done.”
Florida also has a young team coming to Columbus. They return only two starters—Walker and Kenny Boynton—from the team that fell one win short of reaching the Final Four last season.
Boynton scored 21 points against the Buckeyes a year ago, and the Gators will also feature star freshman Brad Beal—a McDonald’s All-American and the 2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year. One of three guards in their starting lineup, Beal scored 14 points in his college debut as the Gators routed Jackson State 99-59 last Friday.
That was the same night that Ohio State opened its season with a 73-42 win over Wright State. Sullinger went for 19 and 9 and Buford chipped in with 13 points, but the Buckeyes know they are facing a different kind of test in game No. 2 of the season.
"I think they are one of the best teams I've seen thus far,” Matta said Monday.
“They’ve got experience. Their guard play has been tremendous in the two games we’ve watched this year. Half their shots are threes. They’re really looking to strike quick in transition.”
Although the Buckeyes are playing at home,in front what should be a sold out crowd, it’s almost inevitable that Florida will go on a run at some point in the game. They have that kind of firepower offensively, and the Buckeyes know this game will be a test of their toughness, just like it was a year ago.
“(They) really pounded us on the offensive glass in the first half. For that team to bounce back and decide enough is enough, we started rebounding, we started pushing the tempo a little bit more and running our set offenses,” Sullinger said of the Buckeyes, who made 24 of their 34 baskets in the second half.
“It really showed that mental toughness is a big key in a lot of big games. We really need to have as much mental toughness as we can because it’s going to be a back-and-forth basketball game.”
However it turns out, the Buckeyes should know a lot more about themselves and this team in 24 hours.
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