Starting Five: Buckeyes Alive Heading to Evanston
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After winning 39-consecutive home games over the course of three seasons, the Ohio State men’s basketball team lost its second one in a month on Sunday when it suffered a 63-60 loss to No. 16 Wisconsin.
Having now lost three of their past five games, the 10th-ranked Buckeyes (23-6, 11-5) will look to get back on track before next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament when they travel to Evanston, Ill. for an 8:30 p.m. tip-off with Northwestern (17-11, 7-9) that will air on the Big Ten Network.
The game becomes a lot more interesting following Michigan State’s 70-55 loss to Indiana in Bloomington Tuesday night. With that loss, the Spartans (24-6, 13-4) have now opened the door for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes can claim a share of the Big Ten championship with wins in their final two games.
Getting Over Wisconsin
After Sunday’s loss, Ohio State coach Thad Matta criticized the way his team played during practice in the days leading up to the game. On Tuesday, Matta said that while he hasn’t had much time to see how the Buckeyes would respond to the loss, he likes what he has seen so far.
“We were only together (on Monday) for a couple hours,” Matta said. “Everything was good.”
Ohio State’s loss on Sunday would have given Michigan State the opportunity to win the Big Ten regular season championship outright on Tuesday had Tom Izzo’s team won in Bloomington.
Even if the Buckeyes could not have played for a regular season title, OSU forward Jared Sullinger said that the season is far from lost.
“We might not win the Big Ten, but now we’re playing for something bigger than just the Big Ten. We’re playing for a seed,” Sullinger said.
“As we go on, it’s not the end of the world. We still have life.”
The Buckeyes’ recent skid has led many fans searching for answers, with some suggesting that Matta switch up his starting line-up. On his radio show on Monday, Matta said that was a possibility, but on Tuesday he clarified his statement, saying that the coaching staff considers changes during both the good and bad times.
“We always talk about line-up changes,” Matta said.
“We’ve really gotten off to some pretty good starts, which I think is what you’re looking for.”
One reason Matta is hesitant to change his line-up is because he has been happy with the production from starting sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr.—the player who would most likely be moved to the bench if any line-up swap were to occur.
“I’ve been very pleased with how Lenzelle’s played and what we’ve needed him to do for us,” Matta said.
“He’s had some big games and in those games I think he’s really taken advantage of what the defense has given him and that’s a great thing for us.”
Another topic that has been discussed over the past few days has been OSU’s leadership, or lack thereof. With just one senior in guard William Buford, Matta said that other players need to emerge to help carry a weight that is too heavy for just one player.
“Will’s the only senior on this basketball team and a lot is thrust on his plate,” Matta said.
“When you’ve played however many games as we’ve played now, I think guys have a pretty good understanding of what they need to do to help this team.”
On Sunday, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said that he too would like to see a definite leader step up for the Buckeyes- a notion that Matta disagreed with on Tuesday.
“I’ll be honest; I’m not looking for one guy to step up,” Matta said.
“I want it collectively. When this team is collective, good things happen.”
Something Bothering Sully?
One of the Buckeyes who was expected to step up was Sullinger, who despite being a sophomore, has been OSU’s leading scorer and rebounder for the past two seasons.
The 6-foot-9 forward, however, appears to have hit a midseason sophomore slump in the past two games, averaging 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds. On Tuesday, Sullinger admitted that he has let the way that a particularly physical Big Ten season has been officiated affect his mindset.
“Mentally, I really couldn’t tell you what’s going on,” Sullinger said.
“I’m always just thinking about ‘how can I play?’ Is the ref going to call this foul or is the ref going to call that foul? I’m constantly worrying about the refs instead of worrying about how I’m supposed to play.”
Matta, who had a lengthy chat on Monday night with star player about his importance to the team, said that he was encouraged by what he saw from Sullinger in their first practice after the loss to Wisconsin.
“Just coming into (Monday)’s practice, he was tremendous,’” Matta said.
“He was as high energy and ready to go as I’ve seen him.”
Scouting The Wildcats
Sullinger also had a chat with OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals, who told him that he would like to see him return to playing the way that he played in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener against Northwestern.
“He said after our Northwestern game, the first game in the Big Ten, I haven’t been playing the same since,” Sullinger said.
“We went back and watched that game and went back and watched the Wisconsin game, and we’d seen two different players. That really helps me realize what I need to do for this basketball team.
Fortunately for Sullinger, the Wildcats are the very team that will be across the court on Wednesday. But even though OSU’s opponent will be wearing the same jerseys they typically do, it will sport a different look than during its 87-54 loss to the Buckeyes on Dec. 28. Leading-scorer John Shurna (20.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG) has moved to the Wildcats’ center position due to an injury suffered by Luka Mirkovic.
“They’re playing a little bit different now with Shurna at the five spot,” Matta said.
“They do shoot a ton of threes and we know we’ve got to do the best job we can to lockdown the 3-point line.”