On Tuesday night, Ohio State shook off a slow start to beat the Florida Gators for the second year running. And though it wasn’t quite as impressive a win as last year’s 93-75 blowout in Gainesville, it was still reassuring to see a young Buckeye team handle itself well against a quality opponent.
Moreover, the 81-72 win taught us a few things about this group of players. At this stage of the season any information is valuable because we simply don’t know much about this squad. Sure, sophomores Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft are known quantities. And William Buford, now a senior, has more or less established his capabilities. But how these Buckeyes will function as a unit is something we’re all learning as we go, the players and coaches included.
“I didn’t know how we were going to play tonight,” said coach Thad Matta. “During the drive in the morning I was saying, ‘What if? What if?’ But I thought we played with good composure. They knocked us early by making shots and our guys did a nice job of continuing to play and weathering the storm.”
Remember how young this team is. Buford is the only senior, and Evan Ravenel the only junior who plays. Ravenel didn’t see any action last season after transferring from Boston College, and his 14 minutes against the Gators were a career high in a Buckeye uniform. So in effect, he has far less experience than the team’s sophomores.
Sullinger, Craft, Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and Jordan Sibert are all in their second year, and will apparently form the core of this year’s team. That was Tuesday night’s first lesson.
This sophomore class is going to be the driving force this year, and will determine just how successful Ohio State is in the end. Last year, the freshman Sullinger was OSU’s most powerful weapon, but seniors David Lighty and Jon Diebler were around to provide a veteran presence. Now the sophomores themselves can fulfill that role, though having Buford available certainly helps.
Tuesday’s second lesson was that Matt is likely to stick to a short bench in pressure situations. While he gave significant minutes to 10 different Buckeyes in the season opener against Wright State, his rotation was far more limited against the #8 Gators. Only seven players were heavily involved in the action. The primary five stayed the same– Sullinger, Thomas, Buford, Craft, Smith, Jr.– and Ravenel and Sibert saw 14 minutes apiece.
Noticeably absent were the team’s blue-chip freshmen, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams. Williams did not play, and the other two combined for only three minutes.
So against stiffer competition, Matta is going with what experience he has. This early in the year, it’s less of a commentary on the young talent than it is on Matta’s desire to go with players who have been more thoroughly tested.
But as the Wright State game showed, Matta is willing to get the freshman into the game under the right conditions, and he would do well to continue that approach throughout the year. Just look at how valuable Sully and Craft were last year.
The third thing we learned from this week’s big win is that William Buford will be the X-factor. Last year, the focus was on other players for a variety of reasons: Lighty’s defense, Diebler’s long-range skills, Sullinger’s inside game. This year, there are fewer options. At least for now. That probably means that getting consistent production from Buford will be particularly important.
Although he was the team’s second-leading scorer last season with 14.4 points per game, consistency was an issue at times. Every once in a while Buford would lay an egg, the most memorable being his 2 of 16 shooting night in the Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky. That was bad enough when the team had numerous other veteran choices and numerous other scorers.
Until Deshaun Thomas begins playing to his potential and until some of this year’s supporting cast steps up, Buford has to be a primary contributor. That means avoiding off nights. The point is that Ohio State can’t afford to become one-dimensional with Sullinger as the only focus for opposing defenses, which makes Buford vital to the team’s success.
Finally, we learned that despite its youth, this team is mentally tough. Facing its first test of the year, the Buckeyes found themselves in an 11-4 hole early. They looked a bit overwhelmed in the game’s first five minutes, and though plenty of basketball was left to be played, there was a real danger that Florida might pull away.
To its credit, OSU didn’t let that happen. The Bucks outscored Florida 31-19 over the period’s final 15 minutes to head to halftime with a lead they wouldn’t surrender. At one point the lead ballooned to 16 as #3 Ohio State set it itself comfortably apart.
Buford led all scorers with 21 points on 7 of 15 shooting. Sullinger (16), Thomas (15), and Craft (13) finished in double figures as well. Ohio State won the turnover battle 7 to 16, grabbing 8 steals in the process. However, the Gators did out-rebound the Buckeyes 34-25. Until Williams asserts himself, boards could be a cause for concern going forward.
Florida got good production from its starters; four of five had double digit points led by Brad Beal’s 17. But the respective benches managed only 10 points apiece.
Ohio State gets Jackson State at home on Friday.