Another Frosty Shooting Night Leaves Buckeyes Guessing
By Brandon Castel
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jared Sullinger leaned against the wall and tugged at his jersey in the hallway of the Crisler Center.
He looked like he wanted to scream.
Maybe he did.
No one would have noticed if he had let out an agonizing howl as he walked off the floor after a 56-51 loss to Michigan Saturday night in Ann Arbor. The place had already erupted into a celebration as a sea of maize and blue—but mostly maize—turned the victory into a state of euphoria on their home floor.
Outside, by the locker room, Sullinger and his teammates were searching for answers. They had just lost their second game in a week after losing a total of six in his first 61 times on the floor at Ohio State.
“Honestly, at this point we really don’t know what our future holds if we keep playing like this,” Sullinger said with a blank stare.
It was the stare of a player who is not used to this, not used to losing. It was the look of frustration from a kid who acts far too mature to show his true aggravation with where this Ohio State team is at now compared to where they were just a few short months ago.
“Coach Matta actually turns on the tape of the Duke game and asks, ‘Where are those guys?,’ ” teammate Deshaun Thomas said after Saturday’s loss.
“Where are those guys.”
That is the question on everyone’s mind as the Buckeyes close in on March, and the madness that comes with a win-or-go-home tournament. There are only four games left in the regular season, and despite the fact they have lost two of their last three games, the Buckeyes are still very much in the hunt for another Big Ten title.
They aren’t going to win much of anything playing the way they did Saturday night.
“I can’t even think about the conference race right now,” Sullinger said.
“We just have to get back to Columbus and get back to work. We have a lot to fix and I wouldn’t be surprised if we spent the entire practice tomorrow working on shooting.”
In Sullinger’s mind, it all comes back to that. He admitted that the Buckeyes are far from where they want to be, or even from who they were during early-season wins over Florida and Duke back in November.
Standing in the hallway of the Crisler Center, that game felt like a lifetime ago, or at least a season ago. It felt like a different team, and in many ways it was. Ohio State scored 85 points in a Blue Devils butt-kicking. They shot nearly 60 percent from the floor and over 57 percent from behind the arc.
They got double-digit scoring from four different players, including 20-point nights from Sullinger and William Buford. The latter also scored 21 in the win over Florida, but his senior season has become one big bet at the roulette table.
Every night it’s either red or black, with black signaling the kind of night (3-12) he had Saturday in Ann Arbor. He also had a similar night (2-12) in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State last week, and the Buckeyes as a whole seem to ride the roller coaster of Buford’s confidence.
“Instead of thinking, 'Oh, I missed the last one,' shoot the next one with confidence,” Sullinger said.
“We didn't shoot any shots with confidence.”
The Buckeyes were 0-for-9 from behind the arc in the first half against Michigan and they would have finished without a three in the game if not for Thomas finding the hot hand.
They are now shooting just 32.6 percent from long rage as a team, down from over 42 percent last year and 39 percent the previous season. A big part of that is the absence of Jon Diebler, but Matta does not expect his team to suddenly just flip a switch.
“No, no, no,” Matta said, showing the first real signs of concern after the game.
“At some point, we need to knock a couple down.”
The Buckeyes are also shooting nearly 20 percentage points lower from the floor this season, despite the fact Sullinger is actually shooting a higher percentage, both from the floor (.554) and especially from long distance (.423).
“We want to go to him as much as we possibly can,” Matta said of Sullinger.
“But a lot of times you need to make shots to open some other things up and that’s something we were unable to do tonight – just to open up the floor a little bit.”
Right now, the Buckeyes simply do not have enough guys who take and make open jump shots. They had nine players get into the game Saturday. Six of them finished with six points or less, including four who went scoreless in 21 combined minutes off the bench.
That is going to happen some nights, but it is now the norm for Ohio State, which ultimately relies on three guys—Sullinger, Thomas and Buford—to do 90 percent of the scoring almost every night out.
They got 39 combined points and 21 rebounds from Sullinger and Thomas Saturday and it still wasn’t good enough. In fact, the Buckeyes never even led in a game that they could have won with three more baskets.
“I'm not worried at all. This team knows what they did, we know what we did, we know we have to come in and hit shots,” Sullinger said.
“As soon as we start making shots I think we’ll be a pretty good basketball team. We just couldn’t make a shot.”
It sounds simple enough, and it’s probably true. If this OSU team hits a few more shots every night, it can play with any team in the country.
But where are the shots going to come from? Who is going to suddenly emerge with four games left in the season? Which Buford is going to show up on any given night? Can they ever get anything from their bench?
These are all questions waiting to be answered after Saturday’s loss.
“I am worried, as a team,” Thomas admitted.
“We can’t afford to lose right now, at this stage, in February. We want to win. We want to make history. That’s what we’re trying to do.
“We can’t do that unless we make shots.”
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