Starting Five: Buckeyes Host Indiana, Out for Revenge
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A season ago, the Ohio State men’s basketball team didn’t suffer its third loss of the season until the final game of the season—a 62-60 defeat at the hands of Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
On Tuesday, this year’s Buckeyes squad picked up its third loss of the season—a 79-74 defeat at Illinois—a mere five games into the Big Ten schedule. As if Ohio State needed anymore motivation to get back on track, it will face the team that handed it its second loss of the year on Sunday, when the No. 5 Buckeyes (15-3, 3-2) host No. 7 Indiana (15-2, 3-2) at Value City Arena for a 4:35 tip-off that will be televised on CBS.
Before the Buckeyes can turn their attention towards their rematch with the Hoosiers, they must first get over what happened in Champaign earlier this week. Despite the fact that his team has already matched its loss total from a season ago, OSU coach Thad Matta has chosen not to take a “sky is falling” approach to the loss.
“I don’t think I would call it a crossroads,” Matta said.
“You don’t ever want to lose a basketball game. With that said, I think we’ve got to continue to find ways to play better basketball, to play more consistent basketball.”
OSU sophomore forward Jared Sullinger agreed with Matta, saying that a loss is no reason to overreact and even that some positives could emerge from the Buckeyes’ loss to Illinois.
“I see us coming together more. Normally after a loss, teams kind of go their separate ways,” Sullinger said.
“We’re really trying to solve this problem amongst each other instead of going everywhere else.”
Jared Taking Blame
A part of the Buckeyes newfound unity this week has been taking personal responsibility for Tuesday’s loss. Following the loss to the Illini, OSU sophomore guard Aaron Craft told media members, “some games we play hard, some games we don’t, and every time we don’t, the other team makes us pay for it.”
Sullinger said that you need not look any further than himself to figure out who Craft was talking about.
“He was kind of singling out me,” Sullinger said of Craft’s comments.
“There were times where I just took a break on the defensive end instead of the offensive end. It cost us.”
The National Player of the Year candidate said that the OSU loss, coupled with Craft’s comments, have motivated him to improve on his leadership abilities, something that has led to a self-imposed social media man for the Buckeyes’ big man.
“I had some nasty remarks on Twitter, to the point where I just had to take my frustration out on something else,” Sullinger said.
“I’m back to having tunnel vision and just trying to stay away from all the negativity, that, you know, people are saying.”
With the Buckeyes having seemingly moved past Tuesday’s loss, their focus is now turns towards Indiana, who they’ll meet with for the first time since the Hoosiers knocked off the Buckeyes with a 74-70 defeat on New Year’s Eve. Both Sullinger and Thomas admitted that that loss isn’t far from their minds.
“I was ready for that game against Indiana. That’s part of playing in a road game. Picking up two quick fouls, you know, and having your momentum go down and everything,” Thomas, an Indiana-native said.
“Coming into this game, it’s just having that mindset, listening to coach every day in practice, we got to be tough, we got to have that effort.”
Thomas’ teammate was a little more direct with his thoughts for Sunday.
“Revenge,” Sullinger said bluntly when asked for his thoughts on the rematch.
“I can’t speak for Deshaun or for anyone else, but I know I don’t take losing lightly. I still think about the time we lost at Kansas, I still think about the time we lost at Indiana, I still think about when we lost at Illinois. I don’t take it lightly. My mindset coming into the game is getting revenge.”
Scouting The Hoosiers
Of course getting revenge on Indiana might be easier said than done. As opposed to recent Hoosier squads, who haven’t finished higher than ninth in the Big Ten or made the NCAA Tournament since 2008, this year’s Indiana team seems poised to be a legitimate contender, both at the conference and national level.
“It takes time to rebuild something, and obviously they’ve done a great job with that,” Matta said.
“The fans never left them and I know that just being over there a couple of weeks ago, they’re every excited about what they have going on right now. In terms of the Big Ten, it adds another team that’s a national contender.”
One of the big reasons for the Hoosiers’ reemergence has been the arrival of freshman big man Cody Zeller, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding with season averages of 14.7 and 6.5, respectively. Matta said that he’s been impressed not only by Zeller, but the offense that Indiana coach Tom Crean has put around him.
“With Zeller in there, it’s a great low-post threat,” Matta said.
“They’re a team that can really, really shoot the basketball. They shoot at a high percentage, they’ve got guys that can shoot and stretch the defense and then they’ve got guys that do a great job of driving you, spacing you.”
Improving The ‘D’
The Buckeyes will be hoping for an encore of their series with Wisconsin a year ago, when OSU trounced the Badgers in Columbus weeks after Wisconsin handed the Buckeyes their first loss of the season in Madison.
In order to do that, however, OSU will need to pick up its defensive effort, something that both coach and players agreed was lacking on Tuesday when the Buckeyes gave up 43 points to Illinois guard Brandon Paul.
“It wasn’t what it needed to be. That’s something that we have been trying to hammer home to our guys, not only coming out of the game, but quite honestly, the entire season,” Matta said.
“When we do the things we’re supposed to do, we’re pretty good defensively. For whatever reason the other night, we didn’t have great communication.”
Sullinger agreed that improving OSU’s defense will be the key to not only beating the Hoosiers, but to the rest of the 2011-12 season.
“We really just need to step up our intensity and our defensive effort, honestly,” Sullinger said.
“In all the games we lost, we gave up at least 77 points, and Illinois had a big night and it was hard to stop Brandon Paul once he got going. But we just never drew that line where we said enough is enough.”