Ohio State will have one more piece of ammunition on its side to fire at Kansas when the teams are rematched from the regular season in one of Saturday’s two NCAA national semifinal games in New Orleans.
Thad Matta: Second Final Four berth
And it’s a big piece of ammunition, at that.
All-American center Jared Sullinger missed OSU’s 78-67 loss at Kansas on Dec. 10 due to back spasms. That was one of two games Sullinger missed this season. He said he is looking forward to having a shot at the Jayhawks when the teams collide on Saturday at the Mercedes Benz Superdome (8:49 p.m. Eastern, CBS).
“There were times when I thought I could have made an impact on that game,” said Sullinger, who watched that loss at Allen Fieldhouse from the bench. The guys went out there and they played very hard. It was a tough loss. I thought that loss helped our team out with Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams (playing).”
Sullinger had back and foot issues early in the season which cost him a lot of practice time in addition to the games against Texas-Pan American and Kansas. He was unable to practice much if at all in the seven days leading up to the Kansas game. The decision was made to sit him when he was unable to go through the shootaround without pain.
“Jared, I remember the day we were playing the game and we were in the locker room,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “He was like, ‘I’d really like to play.’ I think he was caught up in the euphoria (at Kansas). I still don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that when we went out there.
“He’s a winner, he’s a great teammate and he wanted to be a part of it. That was our first loss of the season. I’m sure he was a little bit dejected. By the same token, I hope it motivates him Saturday night.”
Sullinger seems to be back to the form he flashed earlier in the year. He was named as the East Region’s most outstanding player after scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the regional title game win over Syracuse (77-70). Sullinger leads the Buckeyes in scoring (17.6 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg).
“I’ve got great confidence in him and I am going to ride him,” Matta said of Sullinger, who was named a first-team All-American for the second year in a row.
Jared Sullinger vs. Cincinnati
Speaking of All-Americans, the 6-9, 265-pound Sullinger knows he will have his hands full with Kansas All-American Thomas Robinson. Robinson, a 6-10, 237-pound junior, leads Kansas also in scoring (17.9 ppg) and rebounding (11.8). Robinson had a team-high 21 points and seven rebounds in KU’s home win over Ohio State.
Sullinger said he has a lot of respect for Robinson – both on and off the court. It was in the middle of last season when Robinson learned his mother had passed away and he had to come up with a way to take care of his younger sister.
“He is a great basketball player,” Sullinger said. “He has been through a lot. If anybody deserves this moment, it’s him after what he’s been through in the last year. He went through an emotional situation. I don’t think anybody could handle it better than how he’s handled it.
“He’s very physical, quick, strong and athletic. He’s a go getter. He plays hard 100 percent of the time on offense and defense. It will be a physical match-up.”
Kansas played OSU at full strength, but the Jayhawks and coach Bill Self have not seen firsthand – at least yet – what Sullinger can do. He isn’t sure that creates an advantage, though.
“Coach Self is a great Xs and Os coach,” Sullinger said. “He knows the game plan well. That doesn’t give us an advantage. Whichever team comes out and plays the hardest and doesn’t quit, that will be the key to the game. We just have to come out and play hard.”
Kansas (31-6) won the Big 12 regular season title, but was upset by Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. OSU (31-7) took a similar path by winning a share of the Big Ten title before losing the conference tournament championship game to Michigan State.
“They have made, as we have, the natural progression,” Matta said of Kansas. “Everybody has gotten a little bit better and a little bit tougher and everybody understands the system. With that said, a lot like us, Coach Self has those guys rolling in the right direction. They have great confidence and poise out there.”
William Buford vs. Loyola
OSU point guard Aaron Craft said the Buckeyes are juiced to have another shot at the Jayhawks. (The teams will also play a regular season game in Columbus sometime next season.)
“Obviously, they gave us a loss this year and we will be excited to play them,” Craft said. “But they’re a much better team than we played them and I think we’re better than we were then as well. It’s not about the game we had back in December. That was such a long time ago and so much has happened. We’re trying to do a great job of focusing on this game and what they’re doing great right now and just playing to the best of our abilities.”
A year ago, Ohio State was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. But the Buckeyes were ousted by fourth-seeded Kentucky in an East Region semifinal. To make the Final Four with a team judged as the two seed in the East and eighth seed overall this year was an accomplishment, Sullinger said.
“We knew we had a chance with last year’s team,” Sullinger said. “This year, that was obviously one of our goals. We took our lumps early and in February we had some losses and we weren’t playing our best basketball. But with a young team, we responded to it. I think that made us stronger as a basketball team.”
Buford’s Last Bow
Wing William Buford is headed into his final weekend as an Ohio State Buckeye. He is the lone senior on this OSU team and his teammates said they wanted to help Buford take this season as far as they could.
They got their wish with a trip to the Final Four, even if Buford has struggled with his shot during the postseason.
On March 4, he scored 25 points and hit the game-winning 18-foot jumper with a second left in OSU’s 72-70 win at Michigan State. That win helped the Buckeyes secure a share of the Big Ten title. But in the team’s seven games since then, Buford has only hit 34.7 percent (25 of 72) of his shots.
Last weekend in Boston, he was 1 of 8 against Cincinnati and 3 of 12 against Syracuse. Buford was averaging 15.1 points per game after that win at MSU March 4 and is averaging just 11.1 points in the seven games since.
Matta is sticking with Buford, though, as the Buckeyes prep for the Final Four.
"For William, anytime there appears to be trouble, the blame has to go somewhere," Matta said. "Like I've always said, I wish it would go to me and not the players."
It was just over a year ago when Buford had, perhaps, the most miserable game of his OSU career. He was just 2 of 16 from the floor and missed a three just before the buzzer in the season-ending loss to Kentucky.
Buford said his teammates have stuck with him through thick and thin.
"My teammates, they always try to lift me up when I'm having bad games, but when we lose that's the worst part," he said. "When we're winning, of course, that's the high.
"They have been playing great in March. When I do have a bad game, we still end up winning because we're more together than we were at the beginning of the season when things like that would happen."
Sullinger asserted that Buford has found other ways to help the team when his scoring has dipped. Sure enough, Buford had five rebounds and three steals against Cincinnati and nine rebounds against Syracuse.
"When Will knows he's not having a good shooting night or they're guarding him tough, he does other things," Sullinger said. "He's always helping on defense, passing the ball, getting rebounds and making hustle plays. Scoring does not define William Buford any more. He has an all-around game."
After all, it’s not like Buford has not enjoyed a decorated career. He sits fourth in OSU annals with 1,971 points – just 19 behind legendary 1960s star Jerry Lucas.
And Buford and his teammates are two wins away from winning a national title and becoming legends themselves.
"I'm happy,” he said. “We're winning. We're in the Final Four. So as long as we're winning and I'm doing whatever I can do to help my teammates win, that's all that matters to me. It doesn't have to be because I’m scoring."
We have video from Tuesday’s media sessions at OSU featuring Buford, Craft, Sullinger and Matta.
Also Check Out
Click here for Lee Caryer’s column on the East Region win.
Click here for an early look at the Final Four as well as videos from the East Region final win over Syracuse.