Final Four Buildup: Introducing The Ohio State Buckeyes

TheSportsNotebook’s buildup to the Final Four started yesterday with a look at Louisville and now continues today with a breakdown of Ohio State. We’ll take a look at their personnel, the path their season took and the program’s recent Final Four history…

PERSONNEL: Ohio State has some outstanding talent, but very little depth. I tend to use 20 minutes per game as a benchmark for determining if a player gets significant minutes. Most teams have at least six, usually seven and in rare cases eight players who go that high. Ohio State has only its starting five, and that’s due to a mathematical loophole where the sixth man comes up just short of 20. Beyond the starters, no one is close and the Core Four, of Jared Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, William Buford and Aaron Craft all average 30-plus minutes.

The natural flip side to this coin is that these starters, especially the four just mentioned, are awfully good. Sullinger is a beast down low, with an 18 points/9 rebounds per game average. Thomas is another double-digit scorer at 15 ppg. While he doesn’t rebound as well as Sullinger, Thomas can step out and shoot a respectable three-point shot. Both players are in the 75 percent neighborhood from the foul line, so it doesn’t pay to hack them. In the backcourt, senior William Buford averages 15 ppg. Buford is an adequate three-point shooter, but at his most effective inside the arc. And at the point Aaron Craft is a sophomore who does an outstanding job running the offense. He averages five assists per game and shoots 51 percent from the floor, so there’s nothing to be gained by playing off him to take away the pass. A potential concern with Craft is that he shoots 71 percent from the line. Which is not bad, but for a point guard who handles the ball in end-game situations, it would be nice to see that number closer to 80. The fifth starter is Lenzelle Smith, who doesn’t rebound much, nor does he see the ball a lot, but he’s got a good jump shot if defenses ignore him.

SEASON ARC: It was a year of great expectations from the outset, and Ohio State won its six games prior to Thanksgiving, including a win over Florida. They played well at the spot between the holidays, blowing out Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. They lost at Kansas, but that was without Sullinger in the lineup. The Buckeyes were 12-1 heading into conference play, when they started rather sluggish. Losses at Indiana and Illinois prevented them from controlling the Big Ten race the way they had been expected. In mid-January the team found its footing and reeled off six straight wins. And these were high-quality wins—they got revenge against Indiana, beat Purdue, beat Michigan and then went to Wisconsin and got a big road win. Ohio State was now in control of the Big Ten race again. But just as quickly they gave it back. The team lost three of the last five, all to contenders and two of them at home. The first one was to Michigan State, which lifted the Spartans back in the league race. Ohio State also lost at home to Wisconsin, and a road defeat at Michigan left them needing a lot of help in the final week of the season to get a conference title. They got the help and created a little for themselves in sneaking out two-point wins over Northwestern and at Michigan State, the latter win getting them a three-way tie for league honors, along with the Spartans and Wolverines.

In the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State played well, easily pounding Purdue and Michigan before losing a close one to Michigan State. They’ve kept the strong run going in the NCAA Tournament, playing excellent games in beating Gonzaga on the first weekend, and then Cincinnati last Thursday, before finally finishing the job against Syracuse.

MODERN FINAL FOUR HISTORY: Ohio State won its last national title in 1960, but TheSportsNotebook focuses its historical preservation on the period starting in 1976, the first year of the post-Wooden era and when the NCAA Tournament began the evolution to its current form. Ohio State has reached the Final Four twice in that timeframe. The first one came in 1999 when they upended St. John’s in a regional final and gave eventual national champ UConn a tough battle in the semis at St. Petersburg. Then Matta brought his team to Atlanta in 2007, with a couple outstanding freshman in center Greg Oden and Mike Conley, both of whom would be one-and-done players. Ohio State had reached Atlanta in thrilling fashion, rallying to beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and then beating John Calipari’s Memphis in the final. The Buckeyes won the national semi-final over Georgetown, setting up a historic Monday night against Florida. It was historic because the same schools had played just three months earlier in college football’s BCS National Championship Game. Ohio State’s basketball team didn’t get hammered the way the football team did, but they were outmatched by Florida, who was marching to its second straight national title.