Craft, Sullinger Lead Buckeyes to Promise Land
By Brandon Castel
BOSTON — Jared Sullinger spent 14 minutes on the bench in the first half and Aaron Craft watched the last 49 seconds from the bench, but the two Ohio State sophomores lifted the Buckeyes to an improbable Final Four appearance Saturday with a 77-70 win over Syracuse.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Improbable because this team was left for dead after losing to Wisconsin on Senior Day back in February. They seemingly could not live up to the lofty expectations that proceeded them heading into the season, and in the minds of many, there was no way they could accomplish more than last year’s Ohio State team.
Not without Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale—three seniors who had meant so much to the Buckeyes the past two seasons; both of which ultimately ending with losses in the Sweet 16.
But this team never stopped fighting, never stopped getting better, even when it looked like the were coming apart at the seams in mid-February. Even when Sullinger looked like his head was in a million different places and the Buckeyes seemed destined to go any which way but up.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we (weren’t) good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all,” Sullinger said.
“When we (were) going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill. We heard negative comments. I want to thank y'all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that.”
Like it or not, the Buckeyes were “downhill” in February. They did not look like the team that overwhelmed Duke and got by Florida early in the season, not to the fans watching at home, nor the coaches who were at practice every day with this team.
“We got off to a tough start in the Big Ten, and at that point we weren’t a Final Four team,” OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals said.
“We had a team meeting and we had to go two on the road at Northwestern and Michigan State. A lot of people counted us out, and we ended up co-champs in the Big Ten. That’s a testament to Thad (Matta) and what he’s done with this team.”
It was also a testament to the players, who kept listening and kept believing that if they did the things Matta and his staff were telling them to do, they would have a chance to be the ones standing when it was all over.
“It’s a young team and they did a great job of buying in,” OSU video coordinator Greg Paulus said after watching the Buckeyes defeat his former school.
“They did a great job of trusting, believing and working hard. Getting better each week.”
Make no mistake about it, this was a team effort. Without the play of Deshaun Thomas, William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., the Buckeyes would not have been cutting down the nets Saturday night at the TD Garden in downtown Boston.
The same can be said for guys like Amir Williams, Evan Ravenel, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott, all of whom came off the bench and made big plays at important moments for the Buckeyes this season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
But getting to the Final Four in a year like this took something special. It took an insatiable will to win that came from the head coach, but also from the team’s two star sophomores.
“That was something I noticed when I first got here, that we have winners on our team,” said Paulus, who played in four NCAA Tournaments.
“They did a great job of getting better, improving, working hard, listening and not being complacent. That goes to them being winners growing up.”
That starts with Sullinger, who, along with Thomas, has carried the Buckeyes offensively for much of March. The 6-9 sophomore out of Columbus is averaging nearly 18 points per game since the end of February, and he went for 19 and seven against the Orange, despite playing only six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
“Jared does what he does, always. I knew he was going to do that,” Smith said after the game.
“I knew he was going to play well. I almost got a turnover trying to get him the ball because I knew every time he touched it, it was a score. They tried to double team him and he somehow found the hole and put it in there, and he was making his free throws. When he’s doing that, you have to get it to him.”
Sullinger was relentless in the second half, scoring at will over Syracuse big men Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita. Both of them spent the second half in foul trouble, along with James Southerland, who ultimately fouled out of the game.
Maybe it would have been different for the Orange had they had Fab Melo in the middle to play Sullinger, but this was about two guys who willed their team to victory, and to the Final Four, and maybe beyond.
The future is still unknown, but with Craft and Sullinger leading the way, it wouldn’t be smart to count these Buckeyes out again.
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