Call me bitter. Call me a homer. Call me insane.
Call me what you will, but the rankings came out yesterday, and Ohio State got HOSED.
That’s right, the ESPN/Coaches Poll was published Monday afternoon and the one-loss Buckeyes sit disgustedly at third. Not only were they leapfrogged by one-loss Kansas, but they were also somehow jumped by the three-loss Texas Longhorns.
Let’s say we were to put aside for the moment our collective discontent at the pollsters' obstinate adherence to what is, today, the completely outdated practice of automatically penalizing teams that happened to lose most recently (come on, you've got to agree that’s lame). Even if we were to ignore this archaic practice, the Buckeyes should be no lower than No. 2, behind Kansas. And even that is up for debate. (Kansas’ one loss was to No. 2 Texas, yes, but it was also on Kansas’ home court by 11 points...And we won't even get into the Jayhawks' 16-point defeat to Kansas State on Monday night.)
Beyond Ohio State, there is only one other one-loss team in the nation, and that’s San Diego State, a team that is having a dream season but also lost to the BYU Fighting Jimmers by 13 and is ranked only sixth in both major polls.
Yet, facts-be-damned, the voters apparently saw fit to weight Ohio State’s one loss (away to now-No. 10 Wisconsin by four points) more heavily than Texas’ three.
As an aside, let me state that I am fully aware of Texas’ schedule. It’s a grueling one, but (admittedly) it’s afforded the Longhorns some impressive wins. They beat No. 19 North Carolina at home (by two), No. 17 Texas A&M twice (by 21 and 20) and of course they took down top-ranked Kansas on the Jayhawks' home floor. That being said, they also suffered tough home losses to No. 4 Pitt (by two) and No. 12 Connecticut (by one, in overtime).
Not bad...if the story ended there.
Unfortunately for Texas fans, it doesn’t. They also dropped an embarrassing one at unranked USC by 17.
Somehow, though, the passage of time (in this case, the 69 days since Texas went down to the Trojans) was enough to make voters ignore Texas’ three losses (two in that span) and embolden them enough to ignore the Buckeyes. Seems to me that Ohio State is more a victim of when it lost, not how, and not how often.
(Author’s Note: If you’re still reading, it means you’ve persevered long enough through my ranting to reach the actual purpose of this column. Congratulations. Praise you.)
Even after losing Saturday in Madison (where the Badgers haven't lost this year), the Buckeyes still are one of the top two teams in the country. Their record is proof of that. However, there are several indicators outside of the win/loss column that would support the Buckeyes retaining the top spot over Kansas and Texas, not to mention solidifying their distinction as tournament champion favorites come March:
The Buckeyes start three seniors (Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty), one junior (William Buford) and one freshman (Jared Sullinger). All starters apart from Sullinger have played in multiple NCAA tourneys, as well as pulling in an NIT championship in the spring of 2008. And, what Sullinger lacks in college experience, he makes up for with basketball acumen. A coach’s son and star of a state championship team, “Sully” brings the leadership and poise of seasoned vet.
The X-factor though, is Lighty, who, after sustaining an injury during the 2008-2009 season, was granted a fifth year of eligibility. With Ohio State losing Naismith Player of the Year Evan Turner after last season, Lighty’s fifth year has truly been a blessing for OSU. While never receiving the publicity he deserves, Lighty leads the Buckeyes with toughness and poise, and will likely earn a third straight selection to the All-Big Ten defensive team.
The name of the game for the Buckeyes offense is balance. Boasting a bona fide powerhouse in the paint (Player of the Year candidate Sullinger averages 18 points per game), Ohio State makes opponents choose whether to double (and sometimes triple) Sully, or chance the big man having a field day while trying to limit OSU’s outside shooting.
The Buckeyes are tops in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (nearly 50 percent) and can stroke it from anywhere. Jon Diebler plays the role of three-point marksman (shooting 47 percent from behind the arc), Buford provides a silky mid-range shooter’s touch, and Lighty breaks people down off the dribble and in transition.
Before Saturday’s loss, no team could find the answer to the Buckeye offense. Any time Sullinger is left alone, he goes off (40 points versus IUPUI), and any time he is doubled he uses his phenomenal basketball IQ to kick it out to the open man.
It’s almost unfair.
As challenging as the Buckeyes are to defend, at their best they can be just as hard to score on.
Widely considered to be one of the best inside defenders in the country, starting power forward Dallas Lauderdale has one job, and he does it well. While logging limited minutes due to the emergence of freshman Aaron Craft at point guard, Lauderdale imposes his will just fine, ranking third in the conference in blocks per game (1.7). With Lauderdale and Sully patrolling the paint, opposing slashers are inclined to try to free themselves up for jump shots as opposed to venturing into the lane.
And, if Lauderdale and Sullinger’s inside presence wasn’t enough, Ohio State suits up two of the better on-ball defenders in the country in Lighty and Craft. Before Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor’s shooting spree on Saturday (UW coach Bo Ryan masterfully spent the second half calling multiple screens to free Taylor for open looks), Craft met every challenge thrown his way, including locking down Minnesota’s Al Nolen, Penn State’s Taylor Battle and Illinois’ Demitri McCamey.
Meanwhile, at 6’5, Lighty can cover positions one through four, routinely matching up favorably with opposing power forwards.
Assuming upperclassmen Diebler and Buford play even average D (it’s imperative they switch well on ball screens of Lighty and Craft), OSU’s defense is one of the stingiest in the nation.
If all else fails, toss it into the paint.
In the waning minutes of every close game (and OSU has played in many), that has seemed to be Ohio State’s mantra. In nail-biters at Illinois and Northwestern, the Buckeyes repeatedly found ways to get the rock in to Sully, at times just tossing the ball into the melee in hopes that the big cat’s paws would come down with it.
More often than not, they did.
Sullinger is a master in the final minutes of games, snatching balls out of the air, twisting away from double teams, and drawing just enough contact to get to the free throw line. While a string of off performances has dropped his free throw percentage to just under 70 percent, Sullinger is more than proficient at the line, making stopping him in crunch time nearly impossible.
The facet of Sullinger’s game that is often overlooked, however, is his ability to be available late in games. All young players have their struggles, and the one most common to freshman big men is staying out of foul trouble. Sullinger has never fouled out of a game, and is barely ever even close.
This heady efficiency allows the nation’s best team to operate through its best player when it matters.
I won’t say Ohio State’s loss in Madison wasn’t an eye-opener. It most certainly was. Wearing a target on its back as they walked into the Kohl Center, Ohio State was given all it could handle by the Badgers, and despite playing decently well, the Buckeyes came up short. The fact is, these things happen. Teams lose, especially in conference. Every team, no matter how dominant, is bound to slip at some point. It’s almost a sure thing.
Additionally, the Buckeyes showed weaknesses Saturday. After cruising to a 15-point lead against Wisconsin, they surrendered a 17-2 run, and let the lead go for good. This mid-game complacency has nearly cost them several games, and it finally caught up with them Saturday. Also, while they out-rebounded UW 25-23, the only Buckeye that consistently gets boards is Sullinger, a vulnerability OSU coach Thad Matta is well aware of and stresses constantly.
That being said, Ohio State’s weaknesses are few. Simply put, the Buckeyes can shoot, defend and finish as well as any team in the nation, and they have possibly the best player in the country in Jared Sullinger.
In the arbitrary world of college rankings, little is ever fair, and OSU’s Monday snub was more of the same. However, as long as the Buckeyes secure a top seed when the Madness begins, not much else will matter. At that point, when all the money is on the table, the voting ends and the talent takes over.
For what it’s worth, my money’s on the Bucks.