It’s a beautiful thing. For weeks, I’ve been writing, tweeting, and talking to anyone who will listen about how the Buckeyes need to focus on their interior game to become more productive on the offensive end. Last night, they did just that against the Purdue Boilermakers. Jared Sullinger posted a season-high 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting, while Deshaun Thomas added 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, with the two leading an efficient, hard-nosed, team-building 88-71 win in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. The Buckeyes shot 61% from the floor and because of their late 17-2 run, they were able to overcome 12-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc by the Boilers.
The 1-2 inside punch of Sullinger and Thomas was absolutely phenomenal. Purdue’s not a physical team, so the Buckeyes hit the glass hard, outrebounding the Boilers 39-28. They also scored 48 of their 88 points in the paint. For Sullinger, they moved him around a little bit on the perimeter and that prevented the double teams from having time to trap the big guy. Sully hit a crucial three in the final minute of the first half and added another mid-range jumper. The sophomore center did a much better job of remaining under control with the lower half of his body, powering through Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius on several and-one finishes. For Thomas, it was tremendous work on the glass and inside the paint with an array of moves that proved crucial. As Thomas has improved, it’s remarkable to me how solid his touch around the basket is. When he is hitting his outside shot (DT was 2-for-5 from deep), he is virtually unstoppable.
When asked about the 48-18 point disparity in the interior, Sullinger said, “I mean, honestly, not trying to toot my own horn, but we played through me. Obviously, when we see the double, our guards understand that if they get into the open spot, they’re going to have a knockdown jump shot, or if they don’t double, they’re going to let me go work.” If the Buckeyes had a mission statement, that quote would be sufficient.
In the class department, Purdue coach Matt Painter was missing his and was consequently T’d up after relentlessly whining about Aaron Craft’s physical defensive play throughout the first half and into the second half. You know it’s bad when you can hear the coach clear as day on the court mic, something that almost never happens. There’s no doubt that Craft does play a physical brand of defense, both on the perimeter and in the post. However, that brand has been built up over dozens of contests, learning a little bit each game what is and is not acceptable for the officials. Why is this any different than an offensive superstar getting the benefit of the doubt? Instead, the Defensive Player of the Year had to listen to Painter come back with “you’re protecting him” and “he’s hugging them, just like in Columbus”. At first, I thought Painter was whining about Sullinger being aggressive underneath the bucket, getting the benefit of the doubt. If that was the case, it would have been the most humorous thing I’ve heard all season.
Deshaun Thomas turned in another stellar defensive performance on Robbie Hummel. The senior forward was held to just 6 points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field as he never found his comfort zone. The Buckeyes made it a point in the second half to switch everything on the perimeter. Hummel hit just 4-of-13 shots for 8 points in Columbus earlier this season. The Buckeyes did struggle to keep Lewis Jackson out of the paint, as he had 10 points and 10 assists. That, coupled with the three-point shooting of D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith kept Purdue in the game, within striking distance, until the final five minutes. Coach Matta joked about Deshaun’s defense, “Deshaun is really taking to the defensive end. Deshaun is a very prideful kid, and there’s been a point in his career where I just call him Shaun, because I’m saying there’s no D in your game. I’ve gone back to calling him Deshaun.”
It’s taken me this long to talk about William Buford, and sometimes, that’s a really good thing. Buford had just 2 points in the first half, but he had taken only 2 shots. That’s a huge growing up moment for Buford in my opinion, not forcing anything and allowing the game to run through Thomas and Sullinger. Buford did, however, lead the charge in the 17-2 run that blew away the Boilers with 9 points on 3 plays, with 2 and-one finishes and a three-pointer while the lead ballooned from 3 to 14 in that stretch. William’s floor game was solid, contributing 6 rebounds and 5 assists to go with his 11 points. For the first time all season, all five starters were in double digit scoring, with Smith Jr. adding 11 along with Craft’s 10 points, 6 boards, and 7 dimes.
Next up, the Buckeyes will face the Michigan Wolverines this afternoon at around 4:10 pm, following the Michigan State-Wisconsin semifinal. This marks the first time chalk has advanced at the Big Ten Tourney into the semis. The key will be whether Ohio State expends more energy stopping Michigan point guard Trey Burke or if U of M can contain Jared Sullinger any better than Purdue did. That makes Aaron Craft and Jordan Morgan two of the biggest keys to today’s game.
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)