Thinking Out Loud about Craft, Sullinger and the Sweet 16
By Brandon Castel
PITTSBURGH — Saturday’s 73-66 win over Gonzaga in a third-round game of the NCAA tournament was one of the most entertaining of the season for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes and Bulldogs went back and forth for 30 minutes before Ohio State finally put the game away, advancing to its third-straight Sweet 16 appearance.
Thad Matta and his team will play the winner of Sunday night’s matchup between 3-seed Florida State and 6-seed Cincinnati in Boston on Thursday. All of that had me thinking out loud.
About Aaron Craft…
Photo by Jim Davidson
1. We found out what happens when Jared Sullinger is in foul trouble and William Buford isn’t in his groove. The Buckeyes looked like they were in trouble, down seven in the first half and seemingly without an answer offensively. Suddenly Craft and Deshaun Thomas kicked in to a two-man game.
2. We knew what Thomas could do, but if Craft plays like that, it makes Ohio State a much more dangerous team. All year, we’ve been saying Ohio State was vulnerable because they only have three guys who can score consistent points on a given night. Maybe now they have four.
3. Craft’s 17 points tied his season-high in scoring, and are two off his career-high against Penn State last year. He has now scored in double-figures in six of the last nine games. He has been much more aggressive—both in getting to the basket and in being ready to shoot from behind the arc.
4. Gonzaga coach Mark Few admitted his game plan was designed to force Craft to beat them offensively. They wanted to take away Sullinger with Robert Sacre and caught Thomas in a few double-teams that resulted in poor shots or turnovers. He was going to make Craft or Lenzelle Smith be the one to beat him.
5. Once Craft got going, it was hard to slow him down. He knew Sacre wasn’t going to leave Sullinger alone, so there was no real shot-blocking presence in the paint for Gonzaga. Craft also said the Bulldogs were not a team that took a lot of charges on tape, so he decided to be more aggressive.
6. We have seen Craft go on scoring frenzies before, but not quite like we saw against Gonzaga. He had just about everything in his repertoire working against the Bulldogs. He was scoring off the dribble, through traffic, off the glass, on pull-ups and on spot-up jump shots. It wasn’t a 40-point outing, but that is about as selfish (in a good way) we have seen Craft play, maybe ever.
7. There is no way to tell how teams will play Craft in the future. If he comes in ready to score the way he did against Gonzaga, it will change the way teams can defend Ohio State as a whole.
8. Imagine if Craft was playing at the level he played Saturday, and the Buckeyes got a big game out of William Buford. It’s possible that it could all come together at the right time for Ohio State, but there are still some major variables in play.
About Jared Sullinger…
Photo by Jim Davidson
1. One of those variables is Ohio State’s big man. Matta used to say that he knew exactly what he was going to get from Sullinger every night, just like he did with David West at Xavier.
2. That is not always the case right now. Sure, Jared got his 18 points and seven rebounds against Gonzaga Saturday, despite missing a large chunk of the first half with foul trouble.
3. He just doesn’t seem like the guy who is going to get 20 and 13 every night. When Jared was a freshman, he used to tell us to judge his games by the way he rebounded. Well, his rebounding has been up and down all season.
4. Part of that is the work Thomas is doing on the offensive glass, but there are some rebounds Sullinger should be grabbing that he hasn’t been able to pull in lately. That is probably hypercritical of the big guy, but first-team All-Americans get treated differently.
5. They are expected to play like first-team All-Americans every single game. There are only five of them in the country each year, and those five guys should dominate almost every single time they step on the floor. They are the best of the best, the guys who carry their teams night-in and night-out, without excuses.
6. Watching Sullinger play against Sacre on Saturday makes me wonder where his head is. Not because he didn’t play well. Sullinger came out firing with his jumper and knocked down a pair of threes in the opening stanzas of the game.
7. Then he completely went away from that after sitting with foul trouble. When he came back into the game, Sullinger started forcing shots over Sacre, which was about as profitable as the other times he has tried to force shots over guys who have 2-3 inches on him.
8. The reality is, Sullinger is far too talented for that kind of nonsense. It has never made sense why he tries to overpower guys who are bigger or stronger than him. It’s like he has something to prove about his power game, but Sullinger should have been using his finesse game.
9. That’s not to say he should have settled for jump shots all game, but Sullinger is very skilled with the basketball. He has a knack for hitting difficult shots and he is a smart player who knows how to use his body to get different looks.
10. He showed that in the second half against Sacre. That turnaround over his right shoulder was a great look. So was the shot off the glass. He needs to use his shooting ability around the basket, and not just from behind the arc.
11. Even the pull up in the lane over top of Sacre was a great play. It didn’t go in, but he can make that shot. He will NEED to make that shot in the NBA, because everyone is 6-9 or 6-10 in that league.