INDIANAPOLIS – Coming in to the season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were a clear-cut national championship contender.
Then came a minor injury to Jared Sullinger’s foot.
Then a road loss to Indiana on New Year’s Eve.
Then four more conference losses that removed the Buckeyes from the top five and slowly from all that title contender conversation.
Because of all that, the Buckeyes entered the Big Ten Tournament hoping to make a statement. If they couldn’t position themselves to earn a number one NCAA Tournament seed, they could at least prove to the country that they were one of the sport’s four best teams heading into the post-season.
They came very close to the latter, losing an exciting Big Ten Championship game to Michigan State, but might have achieved the former.
“We just didn’t execute and now have to put this game in the past,” said Jared Sullinger after the game. “The main goal is to win the National Championship. We have to focus on that.”
Despite the fairly canned answer, both Sullinger and Aaron Craft did not appear to be dispirited in the post-game press conference. Only sophomores, both carry themselves as savvy veteran leaders, and understand that yesterday’s loss should by no means detract from the progress such a talented team has made in the last few weeks, and it should compel you to think less than them either.
Top seeds Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse all didn’t win their respective conference tournaments. Less may have been at stake for those teams, but for the Buckeyes to come up short themselves does not mean the Buckeyes cannot reach or even exceed the pre-season expectations that were placed upon them.
Sullinger faced bouts of problems against the Spartans Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, but he still finished with a team-high 18-points yesterday. Clearly, he can find ways to score even when up against a tough frontcourt. If he can get support on offense from William Buford and DeShaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will be dangerous.
Coach That Matta agreed after the game, but knows it’s time to tighten up the approach a bit.
“Being in the [Big Ten Championship game] the last four years, you have to learn,” he said. “These guys have to know what’s at stake. Getting them prepared and understanding about the focus that we have to have at practice, walk through, film, and then the game. We have to have the mentality that we now have to play our best basketball.”
Even with the loss, some would say this team already is.
Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN.