I don’t know if I’m the first to say this, but I believe it with all of my heart: No. 6 Cincinnati is going to have a very, very good chance of beating No. 2 Ohio State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in Boston for the same reason that Kentucky beat Ohio State last season in the Sweet 16. (I had that upset in my bracket, no big deal.)
The Wildcats had a big-bodied center to deal with Jared Sullinger in Josh Harrellson. Cincinnati does as well in Yancy Gates.
What makes Sullinger so effective in the post is his ability to use his ample back side to gain position. He has nice footwork and a soft touch around the basket, which, when combined with his solid array of post moves, makes him arguably the most dangerous low-post threat in the country. That said, it is all set up by the fact he is almost immovable once he gets to where he wants to be on the court.
The problem against Kentucky last season was that the Wildcats had their own immovable object in the paint in Harrellson. Sullinger still got his — he finished with 21 points and 16 boards (eight offensive) — but he had to work as hard as he had all season long to get those numbers. And Harrellson certainly didn’t get dominated, finishing with 17 points, 10 boards and three blocks.
Jared Sullinger could have been a top five pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but he opted to return to Columbus to try and win a national title. Back in November, the Buckeyes were a popular pick to do just that. But everyone overlooked just how much Ohio State lost in Jon Diebler and David Lighty.
A major reason that Sullinger was as dominant as he was as a freshman was that it was nearly impossible to double-team him. The majority of the time, Thad Matta played four guards around Sullinger in the post — Diebler, Lighty, Aaron Craft and William Buford, with Diebler being the guy that fed Sullinger the ball in the post the majority of the time. So pick your poison — either allow the big fella to go one-on-one in the post or try and double-team him and hope your defensive rotations were quick enough to avoid giving one of those four sharp-shooter an open look.
This season, however, the shooters that Sullinger has surrounding him are no where near as dangerous. You want stats to back it up? I got stats to back it up. In 2010-2011, Ohio State shot 42.3% from three (which led the country) and took threes on 32.7% of their possessions. This season? The Buckeyes are shooting 32.8% from three and taking threes on just 26.5% of their possessions. It’s not difficult to figure out why: instead of Diebler (1.405 points-per-possession, or PPP, in spot-up situations) and Lighty (1.000 PPP) on the perimeter, defenses have to deal with Lenzelle Smith (1.038 PPP) and Deshaun Thomas (0.956 PPP). At the same time, both Buford (1.045 PPP to 0.962 PPP) and Craft (1.165 PPP to 1.034 PPP) have seen a decrease in their effectiveness as spot-up shooters.
Simply put: Ohio State is easier to defend this season because defenses don’t have to worry as much about getting burned from the perimeter. It can be summed up in one, easy-to-read stat — in the loss the Kentucky last season, Diebler and Lighty were a combined 10-22 from the floor while Buford and Craft shot 2-21.
It is easy to criticize Jared Sullinger for not being the same player he was last season. But in my mind, he’s had a more impressive year. His numbers haven’t dropped off — 0.933 PPP in post-up situations last season as compared to 0.950 PPP this season — despite facing more defensive attention this year while dealing with plantar fasciitis and a bad back.
But that also means that Sullinger is that much more important to his team’s success this season. Case-in-point: Ohio State went 6-4 in the last seven games of the regular season and three games in the Big Ten tournament. In the six wins, Sullinger averaged 20.7 ppg and 10.0 rpg while shooting 54.3% from the floor. In the four losses, he averaged 14.3 ppg and 9.8 rpg while shooting 37.9% from the floor. The best game he had in a loss — 17 points and 16 boards against Michigan State — he also committed 10 turnovers.
Cincinnati has their own Josh Harrellson in the gargantuan Yancy Gates. Sullinger is not going to be able to move Gates off the block, which means that his points and his post touches are going to be that much more difficult to come by. In other words, Buckeye fans better hope that their perimeter attack comes to play, because they may not be able to rely on Sullinger to carry them.