Ohio State Confirms Title Contender Status

Posted by zhayes9 on November 17th, 2010

Thad Matta knows his team is elite/ Orlando Sentinel photo

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Every year, coaches around the country will say there are 10-12 teams that have a legitimate shot to win the national championship.  The regular season is the four-month grind where these teams are separated into clusters, from the favorites (as Kansas and Kentucky were a year ago), to the contenders (Duke and Syracuse) to the semi-contenders (Villanova, West Virginia and Ohio State) and the fringe contenders (Kansas State, Butler and Michigan State).  Prior to tip-off 2010-11, it was a near consensus that the national champion would emerge from this group of 11 teams: Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas State, Villanova, Kansas, Florida, Syracuse, Gonzaga and Illinois.  It was also common knowledge that one team stood taller than the rest of the pack: Duke.

After Ohio State’s 93-75 road thrashing of fellow title contender and preseason SEC favorite Florida, a dominating performance in which the Buckeyes shot 63% as a team and committed just eight turnovers against the Gators unrelenting pressure, Duke has company at the top.  Anyone who watched the Buckeyes systematically and thoroughly deconstruct the Gators in front of their pom-pom waving raucous home crowd will confirm this bold statement: Ohio State can win the national championship in April.

The Buckeyes didn’t exactly surface out of nowhere. Thad Matta’s team was ranked a lofty #4 in the AP poll and our RTC rankings placed Ohio State even higher at #3. Yet, questions lingered regarding the legitimacy of Ohio State.  Most pressing was an obvious query: could they replace national player of the year Evan Turner, a complete package that Matta relied on not only for late game scoring, but also as his steadfast point guard? And could they replace Turner with a freshman at that so very vital position?  Would Jared Sullinger live up to the weight placed on his wide-bodied back since his first dunk at Columbus’ Northland High School as the Buckeyes first reliable low-block scoring presence in years?

Following a resounding 55-point second half that saw Ohio State shoot an “ungodly” 71%, as Matta described the gaudy total, those questions turned into answers.  Newcomer Aaron Craft continued his heady play orchestrating the Buckeye attack, allowing backcourt mate William Buford the freedom to play the majority of minutes at his more comfortable off-guard position. Craft won’t amaze with acrobatic behind-the-back passes or tremendous athleticism. Instead, the former high school quarterback and valedictorian just does the job his position entails, finding Buford and Jon Diebler off screens for open threes or feeding Sullinger the rock in prime position to score. Counting Ohio State’s exhibition game, Craft has totaled 22 assists and three turnovers.

Speaking of Sullinger, there wasn’t a more dominating presence on the court on Tuesday night. The reigning high school player of the year was billed as an old-fashioned, rugged forward that embraced the paint’s dirty work. Sullinger’s 26 point, ten rebound, 13-17 FG performance confirms that assessment, a refresher during an era where lauded big men drift towards the perimeter all too frequently.  Once Sullinger and fellow frontcourt enforcer Dallas Lauderdale made it a point to eradicate the Gators stunning advantage in rebounds and points in the paint in the second half, the game turned on a dime.  “We challenged our guys to get in there and rebound the ball better,” Matta said after the game. “We just weren’t as physical as we needed to be.”

The wily fifth year senior David Lighty also played a major role in the resume-building victory, hitting an extraordinary 9-11 from the field. It often looked as though Lighty was playing in slow motion, combining an ever-improving perimeter jump shot with effective ball fakes, mid-range jumpers and finishes at the rim. With his defensive prowess already well established, Lighty has the ingredients to be the Buckeyes most important player in their quest for a national championship.  As hard as it may be to believe, the Buckeyes appear on this early date to be as formidable as the Greg Oden or Evan Turner-led squads. The team isn’t better without Evan Turner, but they just may be a more complete unit in their offseason swap of Turner, P.J. Hill, Jeremie Simmons and Kyle Madsen for Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, Jordan Sibert, plus an improved core of Buford, Lighty, Diebler and Lauderdale.

While the Gators appeared plagued by the same issues that has kept Billy Donovan from winning an NCAA Tournament game since his second national championship over Matta’s team in 2007, this year’s version of the Buckeyes, even on this early date, looked like a well-tuned machine running on all cylinders, a favorite to complete that aforementioned quest as the last team standing in Houston.  After Tuesday night’s clinic, that quest just became a whole lot more realistic.

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