Starting Five: Buckeyes Not Taking Boilers Lightly
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three days after picking up what was arguably the most important win of the Big Ten season—a 58-52 road victory at No. 19 Wisconsin—Ohio State returns to Columbus to host Purdue.
The 9 p.m. tip-off between the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes (20-3, 8-2) and the Boilermakers (15-8, 5-5) will be the only regular season meeting between the top two teams in the Big Ten from a year ago and can be seen on ESPN.
After sitting through two bye weeks in the past three weeks, the Buckeyes will get a quick turnaround with just two days off in between facing the Badgers and the Boilermakers. Ohio State coach Thad Matta said the quick turnaround didn’t leave much time to enjoy what was his first win in Madison, Wisc. as OSU’s head coach.
“We addressed it when we got back Saturday evening from a standpoint of unfortunately, this game is over, and our minds have got to shift now to the next game,” Matta said.
“We’re nowhere near the end of the season and that wasn’t an end-all win to cap off a great year.”
With just two days between games, Matta could use his bench more than he typically has against the Boilermakers, which could mean extended minutes for players like freshman point guard Shannon Scott.
“Things are getting a lot better for me really,” Scott said.
“I’m starting to realize how easy the game actually is now instead of just trying to be somebody or get a spot on the team.”
Despite having been one of the top programs in the conference over the past five years, Purdue currently finds itself in a state of flux having lost current NBA players JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore from a season ago. The Boilermakers currently sit at a .500 conference record and are coming off a 17-point loss to in-state rival Indiana.
“They’ve got guys, a lot like we are, they’ve got some experience but they’re still young in some spots,” Matta said.
“There’s times where they’ve played tremendous basketball. I think our guys understand that and know that going into the game that this is another Big Ten battle.”
The Boilermakers are led by senior forward Robbie Hummel, who is averaging 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for Purdue this season after having missed all of last season a portion of the 2009-10 season with injuries. Matta—who’s no stranger to injury issues himself—said it’s hard not to root for a player like Hummel.
“The one thing I think I’ve always noticed about Robbie Hummel is he’s a great kid,” Matta said.
“He’s a tremendous player I have honestly the utmost respect for what he’s done in his time there.”
The last time Hummel played against the Buckeyes in Columbus also happened to be the last time OSU lost a game on its home floor. Since that night on Feb. 17, 2010, the Buckeyes have made it a habit of steamrolling over several teams—including Duke, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Purdue—on the Value City Arena floor.
“We’ve been fortunate in some of the games getting off to a great start or starting the second half really well,” Matta said.
“Whatever it is, I’d like to bottle it up and take it with us on the road.”
Sullinger attributed the Buckeyes’ home wins streak—second-longest in college basketball at 38 games—to the Buckeye Nuthouse student section and the shift to move it from behind the baskets to behind the teams’ benches.
“It’s a big help,” Sullinger said.
“It’s more loud. Before, it was just coming on one end. Now, it’s everywhere. It’s not just the students, it’s the fans as well.”
Three Point Problems?
As opposed to a season ago when the Buckeyes shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range, this season has seen OSU struggle from behind the arc, having converted just 33 percent of its 3-point attempts.
Matta downplayed OSU’s 3-point game, or lack thereof, on Saturday, when the Buckeyes converted just one of their seven attempts from beyond the arc.
“We did a decent job of taking what was given to us,” Matta said.
“A lot of times our threes come in transition and Wisconsin’s a really, really good transition defensive team. I thought for points-for-possession and that sort of thing against a great defense, we were pretty effective with what we were trying to get done.”
The past four years might be a hard measuring stick for the Buckeyes to hold their 3-point shooting to considering that those OSU teams possessed the Big Ten’s all-time leading 3-point marksman in Jon Diebler. Sullinger admitted that losing a player like Diebler changes the way that everyone plays the game.
“The offense last year, we could’ve just stood there and knocked down threes,” Sullinger said.
“We know what we got to do to score the basketball and when we play inside-out, or even driving the basketball, we’re very hard to guard.”
The Sullinger Effect
Ohio State’s lack of a consistent outside game has been negated, however, by the consistent inside game its getting from Sullinger. The Buckeyes big man is averaging 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in his sophomore campaign and has constantly been the focus of Matta’s offense that installs a disciplined spacing of his players.
“Spacing, to me, is offense,” Matta said. “That’s something that we’ve tried to preach with this team and I think we’re getting better at.”
As opposed to last year when Diebler’s outside threat made things easier on Sullinger, now Sullinger’s inside threat is making things easier for players like Scott.
“I know that when you give him the ball, the whole defense is going to come trap down on him,” Scott said of Sullinger.
“Just getting him the ball makes our lives easier, it makes it easier for us to score.”