Nick Fasulo

Sophomore season was right call for maturing Jared Sullinger

0 Comments

BOSTON – When Jared Sullinger signed on to play college basketball for Ohio State, he gave the Buckeyes a skilled big man; a frontcourt anchor who was a consensus top five player from the class of 2010.

Immediately the most talented player on the team, the humble and personable Sullinger did his best not to step on anybody’s toes.

“He blended in,” said Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals. “When he came in as a freshman, he followed, he listened, he didn’t have that superstar ego mentality, and that really set the tone for the whole year.”

As the season moved along it was clear that Sullinger was, in fact, one of the more talented college basketball back-to-the-basket players in recent memory, leading the Big Ten Conference in rebounding and finishing seventh in scoring.

So naturally, when Sullinger decided to return to college instead of declare for the NBA Draft, it raised more red flags than praise in basketball circles.

In his sophomore campaign, Sullinger by no means breezed through the competition.

He faced double teams, he faced a rough February, he even faced a three-headed green monster of Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix that gave him fits — all which contributed to fairly similar numbers from his freshman season.

But he also led his team to the Final Four, and that is why he came back to Columbus for a second season.

You can say what you want about Jared Sullinger. You may think his decision to come back to school may have cost him money, may have hurt his NBA Draft stock, may have even changed the college basketball fan’s perception of how good he really was.

Whatever you think, don’t for a second think it bothers him.

If anything, it motivates him.

“I appreciate everyone that doubted this basketball team,” said Sullinger with a grin following tonight’s Elite Eight victory over Syracuse. “We heard negative comments, and I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Despite foul trouble that forced the big man to sit out for 14 of the game’s first 20-minutes, Sullinger responded to score 15 of his 19 points in the second half to lead the Buckeyes to their 10th Final Four appearance in program history.

In the process, he was named East Region Most Outstanding Player.

Just like what we saw from him during a demanding schedule, Sullinger showed he’s someone you may be able to hold down for a period of time – someone you may be able to bend –  but rarely can you do it for an entire game. The kid won’t break. He just grinds and goes to work down low until he gets what he wants.

“He’s taken a pounding all year, but he’s responded great,” said Boals. “Even in practice, we would purposely not call fouls to let him get beat on. There was a point in the season where he was getting frustrated and we sat him down and showed him a few things on tape. And ever since that, he’s taken off.”

So now with the regionals in the rear view, the Buckeyes must continue with their progression through the field of 68.

While the Final Four is an excellent accomplishment for this team, it by no means should feel like the end. This was a pre-season No. 3 team in both the AP and Coaches Poll. Many people would expect the Buckeyes to still be standing this late in the season.

“Hopefully, it’s not our last game,” said Sullinger. “We’re not going down to New Orleans for a vacation.”

“This is a business trip.”

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Sullinger, Thomas are keys to Buckeyes breaking through Syracuse zone

1 Comment

BOSTON – Leading up to tonight’s much anticipated East Regional Final between the Syracuse and Ohio State, it’s clear what’s driving the discussion.

Rarely this season has the focus been about how the Orange would fare and adjust to an opponent’s offensive or defensive approach, but rather how their opponent would handle the vaunted zone.

Jim Boeheim’s team has been the favorites in every game leading up to tonight (note: tonight is the first game all season where ‘Cuse is the Vegas underdog, as they’re currently +2.5 against Ohio State), so they get the benefit of the doubt in most cases as the team that will win if they just play their game.

So for tonight, it’s not really about how a Fab Melo-less Orange team can limit the production of a Jared Sullinger. It’s not about if Syracuse’s ball-handlers can playmake when defended by Aaron Craft.

No, the questions being asked to handicap this match-up is if the Buckeyes, specifically Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, can effectively score against the 2-3.

“We haven’t seen a ton of zone for a steady diet,” said Thad Matta. “And Syracuse’s is different because they play it more obviously frequently.”

Sullinger has slowly taken his offensive game a bit beyond the basket, and may have to do that even more tonight to get his points by making the mid-range jumper.

He’s also a deft passer for a big-man, so getting him the ball in the middle of the zone wouldn’t be a terrible idea, as he could easily decide to look to draw defenders and hit an open perimeter player.

“Our guards are trying attack in the middle and dump it down on the baseline,” said Thomas.”It’s more than just shooting threes.  We’re just going to get in the zone and get easy shots”

For Thomas, his versatility is what makes him a potentially dangerous weapon for Thad Matta. A player that can score from just about anywhere on the court when he’s at his best – as proven in the Buckeyes Sweet 16 victory over Cincinnati – Thomas may have to replicate the output once again if the Buckeyes are to win the East.

“I think that you look at kind of the climate of college basketball now, and it’s really shifted to skilled four men and guys that can really stretch the defense,” said Matta, emphasizing the importance of player like Thomas against a zone. “I think the great thing Deshaun has is he cannot only stretch it but he’s driving the ball.  The last month of the season, he’s really putting it on the deck and doing a better job there, but he can also post‑up. “

The Buckeyes are a more talented and balanced team than Wisconsin. They don’t need to hit 14-three-pointers just to have a shot to beat the Orange. But what they do need to do is work from the inside to the outside when it comes to creating offense.

“Moving [Sullinger] around, high, low, inside, outside, kind of the same with Deshaun, that tandem there is something we definitely need to do in tomorrow night’s game,” said Matta.

The Buckeyes have the personnel on the offensive end to give the Orange fits for a full 40 minutes.

Getting Sullinger and Thomas going early is key, and allowing the rest of the team to feed off that attention and get open looks will be what could drive the Buckeyes straight to New Orleans.

Ohio State one step closer to meeting lofty expectations

0 Comments

BOSTON – So Ohio State is going to be one of the final eight teams standing entering the weekend.

That shouldn’t shock you, but you may overlook the fact that this is unchartered territory for this current roster of Buckeye players.

Yeah, Thad Matta’s Buckeyes were a national runner-up in 2007, but since then the talent level  of all subsequent teams has not severely dipped, but Ohio State has been unable to reach a regional final even though they’ve clearly been good enough to do just that.

With last night’s victory over Cincinnati, finally, the Buckeyes have a chance to meet the expectations of harsh critics, and exceed expectations from those who have written off this team for lacking a killer instinct.

“Coach Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped,” said Jared Sullinger after the game “We wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling. I mean, it’s tremendous to be in a situation like this, and it’s a blessing, but at the same time we can’t lose sight of focus.”

Sullinger is spot on. Any sort of revelry after beaing Cincinnati may have suggested this team was satisfied, but clearly there should be bigger goals to seek to attain in this 2012 NCAA Tournament. Goals that would validate players like Sullinger and William Buford and even Aaron Craft as true Ohio State Buckeye stars.

“I think as you get to this stage, a lot of it, just the emotion of continuing to advance really centralizes your guys’ thinking and focuses their thinking,” said Matta. “I couldn’t be happier for this team.”

This Buckeye progam has been very successful under Matta.

He would like to say that it’s been built with the help of that football team in Columbus, but Matta has turned the basketball program into its own, self-sustaining entity within the Ohio State athletic department. One that will continue to grow and likely one day solidify itself as one of the country’s top and consistent basketball programs.

He just hasn’t won a National Championship yet.

But now that he’s knocking on the door for the first time in five seasons, he may get a real chance to take this program to the next level.

In Syracuse’s win over Wisconsin, C.J. Fair shows why he’s vital

1 Comment

BOSTON – He’s fifth on the team in scoring, but logs the second most minutes on the team.

He’s not a true frontcourt player, yet is second on the team in rebounds (and first on the current roster).

C.J. Fair is not a star. He may never be a star in his time in Syracuse, but there’s a strong argument to make that he’s the most important player on this balanced 2011-2012 Orange team.

Fair led the Orange in their 64-63 win vs. Wisconsin with 15 points on 7-9 shooting seven rebounds. He did everything he could to not get in the way, and instead just let the game come to him.

“We needed C.J. tonight,” said Jim Boeheim after the game. “If we hadn’t had him tonight…”

I’ll kindly step in here and complete the coach’s sentence he did not finish: the Orange likely would not have won.

Never the one being imitated by kids playing in the park, Fair doesn’t get nearly enough acclaim as a Syracuse basketball player, but he’s the type player of every National Championship winning coach is thankful for having on his roster.

“I had a good practice yesterday and I told myself ‘tomorrow is going to be a good day’,” said a mobbed Fair after the game.

As the Orange continue to win despite Fab Melo, it’s a player like Fair in huge, nail-biting game that comes through when you may not expect him to.

After missing two free throws early in the first half, grumblings abounded that this could be another struggle for the soft-spoken player.

While it was noted in the post-game press conference by Scoop Jardine that Fair’s last three games have been poor, the sophomore forward really hadn’t had a solid all-around game for the Orange since their 71-69 win over UConn in Gampel Pavilion – another important and tight ball game.

“I was like ‘aw man, not this again’,” said Fair. “So then I’m thinking that I just needed to get a bucket. Just something to get me going.”

But fittingly, coming out of tonight’s third media timeout, Fair got it together. He composed himself, went made dunk, made jumper, made jumper…

“And from there, I knew it was gonna be my day,” he said.

When Fair is on, he’s a blast to watch. As defenses get caught up in the driving abilities of Dion Waiters, or the interior presence of Fab Melo, there is Fair, always in position, working sideline-to-sideline waiting for a pass to get a baseline jumper, or trailing the break looking to receive the back pass.

This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!

With the Orange now preparing to meet Ohio State in the East Regional final on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how Fair follows up such a great, timely output.

Don’t think that the Ohio State coaching staff will gloss over tonight’s output from the lefty, but don’t think Fair isn’t aware he may be keyed on.

“I’m still looking to be aggressive,” said Fair. “Hopefully it goes my way again.”

William Buford wasn’t stellar, but win gets him deserved shot at Final Four

0 Comments

BOSTON – Currently the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer player, William Buford has certainly left his mark on the Ohio State basketball program.

The player who holds the distinction of starting more games than any other player to pass through Ohio State, Buford has played alongside college basketball superstars Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger and been a part, if not the centerpiece, of many great and important games.

But he’s never been to a regional final, instead ending his first three seasons in Columbus with heartache and under-achievement.

Until now.

Despite another unimpressive performance in the Sweet 16, Buford, speaking in terms of team, got the monkey off his back, as No. 2 seed Ohio State advanced past a pesky No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bearcat squad with an 81-66 victory.

Buford finished with just four points on 1-8 shooting. He also committed four fouls and five turnovers.

His numbers in the game’s box score are nothing which would be something to write home about, and aligned with Buford’s two previous Sweet 16 performances.

Oh well.

“We advanced,” said Buford after the game. “And that’s all that matters.”

Last season, Buford finished with nine points on 2-16 shooting in a Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky.

In 2010, he was inefficient against Tennessee, as the two-seed Buckeyes were defeated by the Volunteers.

The year before, he was the victim of a first round defeat to mid-major Siena.

His NCAA Tournament life has been anything but pleasant.

“It feels great just to say I’m in the Elite Eight,” he said. “I’ve never been this far. Nobody on this team has ever been this far. All the hard work is paying off but we got a long way to go to get where we want.”

So regardless as to how it’s done, the Buckeyes advance, so does Buford.

He gets a chance to play for the Final Four and a shot at redemption. At being the guy everyone points to in the locker room as the star of the game; something he’s shown to be more than capable of doing, just maybe not when the lights are brightest.

As a senior whose name is prominently plastered on the school’s record book, Buford deserves the chance to cut down a net or two this spring.

With the Buckeyes still standing, Buford is just 40 minutes away from doing just that.

No Fab Melo, but Orange just find way to win

0 Comments

BOSTON – In a game that taught us  that great shooting can beat a balanced attack the No. 1 seed Syracuse Orange defeated the No. 4 seed Wisconsin Badgers 64-63.

Despite arguably their best shooting performance of the entire season, the Badgers came up just short in their upset bid.

In just the first few minutes, it was clear that the primary determining factor in the outcome of this game would be Wisconsin’s ability to make shots.

With no playmakers outside of Jordan Taylor, the Badgers struck to their methodical and prodding offensive approach against a Syracuse zone that did its best to not budge.

Led by Taylor and Jered Berggren, the Badgers were a combined 14-26 from beyond the arc, but only 7-22 for two-point field goals. They even provided the viewing audience with an unforgettable stretch where they made six consecutive threes to re-claim the lead in the second half.

“We got an awfully lot of good looks and we took them,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.  “We don’t put a number on things, but we know some teams that played well against them, stretched them, made some threes.  We could have finished on a couple more buckets inside, but we took what they gave us, and that’s how we survive.”

The approach was predictable but, in a way, irrelevant. Employing their patented 2-3 zone, the Orange were not worn down by the Badgers patience and strategy to draining shot clock on every possession. Instead, it was  really just their the Badgers just finding an open shot and a comfort level.

As Bo Ryan’s club made quite the impression at one end of the court,  the Orange continued to get balanced scoring at the other end and countered nearly every Bucky blow.

Led by C.J. Fair’s 15 points, four Orange players finished in double figures and did not ever appear to rely on one player or shot to propel them to victory, shooting 55 percent from the floor including only nine three pointers.

Additionally, they allowed only six second-chance points and eight offensive rebounds – tied for their lowest amount all season.

“We believe in each other.  When you’ve got a team like that, no matter what, we’re capable of winning games no matter who we’re playing against or what the circumstances are in every game,” Scoop Jardine said.  “I don’t think we had too many lows, but I’ll tell you one thing, we got a tough game and we won it, and we’ve been doing that all year.”

A tough game it was, but just another hurdle of adversity this team has jumped over all season.

So with no Fab Melo, the Orange are still playing. One game away from the Final Four, their approach to not needing one guy on either offense or defense appears to still be working.

With our without their starting center, they’re still the team to beat in the East.