Defensive Intensity Key To Buckeyes Split Personality
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Following Ohio State’s 79-74 loss to Illinois, OSU sophomore point guard Aaron Craft accused his team of having a split personality. After the Buckeyes’ 80-63 blowout win over No. 11 Indiana on Sunday, it was clear what the difference between the team’s separate identities is:
Jared Sullinger plays a little defense against the Hoosiers.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Their defensive intensity.
Ohio State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) allowed just 14 points on 27.3 percent shooting and forced 12 Hoosiers turnovers during a first half rout this past Sunday. The Buckeyes had put the game out of reach even before the buzzer for intermission had sounded.
After the game, Craft said that he was much more impressed with his team’s performance against Indiana than he was when the Buckeyes played the Fighting Illini.
“We were kind of playing with an edge coming off a loss and going back and looking at the tape and seeing that we weren’t playing as hard as we should’ve been,” Craft said.
“We had to work on some things and get better and as a team. We came in and understood that we had to get better each day.”
After the Buckeyes gave up 79 points—including 43 to guard Brandon Paul—against Illinois, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he placed an increased emphasis on the defensive side of the ball in the days leading up to his team’s match-up with the Hoosiers.
“That was one of the big things we talked about, was five guys out there reading each other and reading ball moves and I thought we had very good pressure on the basketball,” Matta said.
“We were reading our positioning and adjusting from there, that’s not something we always do.”
Forward Jared Sullinger was one of the OSU players who admittedly needed to refocus his effort on defense. He said Matta’s message to the team and gameplan for Indiana was simple.
“Pressure, pressure, pressure,” Sullinger said.
“We just wanted to get up in their jockstrap according to coach Matta. And just stop them from turning the ball from side-to-side and getting into their sets and blowing up their sets.”
That message seemed to have been heard loud and clear by the Buckeyes—at least for one dominant half of basketball. Perhaps unable to go anywhere but down, the OSU defense let up in the second half, allowing 49 Indiana points and only forcing four turnovers.
Sullinger said that the Buckeyes’ uninspired effort after intermission came from a place of complacency.
“Sometimes you lose focus, sometimes it’s like, you know when you’re up 25 points they make a two you’re like, ‘oh well, we’re still up 23’ and the next thing you know they’re down 17,” Sullinger said.
“You have to draw the line somewhere.”
Despite the drop-off in the second half, Matta refused to let what his team did in the second half tarnish what was accomplished in the first half, when Indiana managed just six total field goals.
“It’s what I dream about at night,” the OSU coach said of his team’s defensive effort on Sunday.
“We’ve shown signs of that, but it’s that consistency. It’s having that energy or whatever it was. We constantly talk about having that high connectedness.”
If ever there was an example of the Buckeyes’ defense being in-sync, it came on Sunday, when even after scoring a career-high 28 points against the Hoosiers, sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. said that the highlight of his day came when Indiana was in possession of the ball.
“We were really connected on defense. I didn’t worry about offense at all,” said Smith, a first-year starter for the Buckeyes.
“I was so happy to be on defense. I felt like we could stop any team in the country today.”
After Sunday’s effort Craft—and perhaps more importantly, the rest of the Big Ten—knows what the Buckeyes are fully capable on the defensive end of the floor. The OSU point guard hopes that he will continue to see—or at least, hear— that effort for the remainder of the season.
“The biggest thing to tell us if we’re connected is if we’re talking and communicating on defense,” Craft said.
“There will be times where no one’s saying a word and only the coaches on the bench will be saying something and that’s not very good for us. We understand that we’re into the game, we’re focused, and we have five guys connected on the floor where everyone’s communicating and everyone’s moving and everyone’s talking and that’s the biggest thing we have to do.”
Craft and Matta will hope to hear plenty of chatter when OSU returns to action on Saturday to face Nebraska (10-8, 2-5), who like the Buckeyes, is coming off a win over the Hoosiers.