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BcksWe’re officially ten days out from Selection Sunday and the panic button is still fully engaged in Columbus. The expectations were sky high for Ohio State coming into this 2011-12 college basketball season, yet here we are on March 1st having alternated wins and losses for the last six games – dating back to a win over Purdue the first week of February.

Can the Buckeyes right the ship this late in the season and still make a run to the National Title as was expected back in November? Kemba Walker would say yes.

While improbable at this point, watching Ohio State successfully manage their way clear to New Orleans to cut down the nets would be a bit of a surprise considering their recent struggles, but crazier things have happened in March. Last season’s eventual National Champion Connecticut closed out their regular season by losing seven of their final eleven contests before winning eleven straight, against ten ranked opponents, to secure Jim Calhoun’s third national championship in twelve years.

Could Ohio State do the same? A few key factors say yes.

Key Pieces

The Buckeyes have talent and that’s undeniable. The arguments for Thad Matta to better use that talent have been well documented throughout the ups and downs of recent weeks, but the pieces are in place to be dominant.

We have star power with reigning national freshman of the year Jared Sullinger who happens to be coming off a 22-point, 18-rebound performance in last night’s two-point win over Northwestern on the road, a much needed performance out of the man who has admittedly been “distracted” as of late.

We have an established point guard and floor general in Aaron Craft who plays as good of defense as any PG in America. His points, steals and shooting percentages are up from his freshman campaign, and he’s actually chipping in nearly 11 points per game over his last seven – shooting 56% from the field over that stretch. He’s been the one consistent ‘rock’ on the 2011-12 version of the Buckeyes.

William Buford, in the eyes of most, has had a down year versus expectation. He’s averaged his 14.8 points and 5 rebounds, but that’s no better than what he put up as a sophomore two seasons ago. We expected a break out season for the senior and he simply hasn’t delivered. His shooting percentage (42.9%) is the lowest in his four seasons as a Buckeye. His on-court leadership is much needed but nonexistent. Any burst of offense or consistency from Buford come tournament time could be a key factor that puts the Buckeyes over the top.

DeShaun Thomas has somewhat surprisingly averaged 15 points and 5 rebounds over the course of the season and in doing so has really become Ohio State’s second scoring threat behind Sullinger – a role that was meant for senior William Buford this year.

Thomas has still had many of the same struggles as he did as a freshman, mainly with streaks of poor shot selection that lead to poor shooting percentages, but he’s also had his share of break-out performances as a sophomore. He’s put up 18 or more points in nine games this year, including 30 on the road against South Carolina. He’s averaged 21.5 over his last four games, including 19 last night against Northwestern. Needless to say, he’s peaking at the right time if we have any hope at success in March.

Any output we can get from Lenzelle Smith, Jr. has proven to be a bonus. The 12 points and 7 assists he recorded last night in Evanston, while not something we can expect on a game-to-game basis, could be the difference in a tight tournament game this month. The 28 he put up on Indiana six weeks ago, on 10-12 shooting, would be a deal breaker in most tournament games. What we can’t see more of is the 0 points on one shot over 30 minutes of floor time from our shooting guard, as Smith did against Wisconsin last week. That’s a recipe for disaster against the top tier teams in the country. 

 

Proven Performance - Duke

The single performance that has shown the most in line with potential was unquestionably back on November 29th when Ohio State ran the #4 Duke Blue Devils straight out of the Schott with a dominating 85-63 early-season win as part of the B1G/ACC Challenge. The Buckeyes that showed up that night could compete with any team in America on any night. Unfortunately we haven’t seen a repeat performance, but the potential is there.

Can Ohio State find that magic again? Every variable is the same today as it was back in November – personnel, health, rotation – what seems to be missing is the toughness, teamwork and ‘gel’ amongst the team as we close out the regular season.

Sullinger seemed to get his groove back last night after a few down performances while admittedly being “distracted.” Unfortunately Buford has continued with his inconsistency. Over the last seven games he’s had outputs of 29, 24, 17, and 15 points while squeezing in a pedestrian 6 and 4 in the two biggest games of the stretch, versus MSU and our rivals up north. Last night he was the only starter who didn’t reach double digits. As long as that inconsistency is a reality, subpar performances like that out of Buford could be what ends our season in the win-or-go-home tournament format.

With that being said, this team has the talent and system to get multiple players in double digits. Last night was one such box score that looked pretty familiar to the recipe that knocked off Duke, all be it against a much lesser opponent. Against Northwestern we got 22 points, 19, 14, and 12 out of Sullinger, Thomas, Craft and Smith, respectively. The night the Buckeyes ambushed the Blue Devils we saw Sullinger, Thomas, Craft and Buford combine for 76 – which alone would have beaten Duke by 13.

Eight different players took shots against Duke. Evan Ravenal went 0-2, but nobody else shot less than 50% en route to a 59% shooting night as a team. Is that repeatable come tournament time? It is, but not likely in the same fashion. The 2012 version of Ohio State hasn’t proven to be much of a three-point threat, but on that night the Buckeyes torched Duke with eight three-pointers in fourteen attempts.

Gone are the days of Diebler camping behind the line and burying daggers, but if Ohio State can manage their way to the Elite Eight, anything can happen. The Duke performance three months ago was supposed to propel the Bucks towards a national title, but we haven’t seen that momentum sustained by any stretch of the imagination. The good thing about March is that if we see a repeat performance, on any given night, it means we’ve survived. That means everything against the likes of a Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas or…..

 

Kentucky

I’m not so sure, aside from one fateful night in Bloomington, that anyone has an answer for John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. They’re not exactly playing in the best conference in the country, but have still rolled to a #1 ranking and 28-1 record (14-0 SEC) with key wins over Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Florida. Their season has been the exact opposite of Ohio State’s – high expectation followed by high performance versus the high expectation and inconsistent performance of OSU.

Kentucky puts a tough matchup on the court at every position. They currently have five future professionals getting 28 minutes or more per game - Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and the possible National Player of the Year Terrence Jones. With Ohio State likely landing a #2 or #3 seed for the NCAA’s, there’s a chance we may draw Kentucky once again in our own bracket. As we know, a trip to the Final Four is step one towards a national championship. Once there you can throw all records out the window, as seen in the performance of Butler the last two tournaments as well as last year’s eventual champion Connecticut. Just getting to the Final Four could be an insurmountable climb if we catch Kentucky in the round of eight or sixteen – unless we can recreate the recipe that ran Duke out of Columbus late last year.

 

UCONN 2010-11

Kemba-WalkerThe Huskies caught lightening in a bottle last March, rattling off eleven straight wins en route to a Big East Tournament crown and ultimately a national championship. They entered their conference tournament having lost seven of eleven before knocking off DePaul, #22 Georgetown, #3 Pittsburgh, #11 Syracuse and #14 Louisville to win the Big East tournament championship and gather all the momentum they would need to enter the NCAA Tournament as a confident bunch.

Once the NCAA tourney got here it was Kemba-or-Bust for UConn. Walker put on a historical performance over their six-game run through the tournament, averaging 24ppg on his way to tournament MVP, including 33 and 36 against Cincinnati and San Diego State to get UConn to the Elite Eight.

Even with the amazing run by Walker, defense was the key to Connecticut’s run through March. While often overshadowed by Walker’s theatrics, the Huskies’ defense held opponents to just 56ppg in the NCAA tournament – including just 55 from Kentucky and a measly 41 in the title game out of Butler.

 

So can Ohio State do the same?

We have the talent and have proven how devastating it can be when it all comes together for a night. We have the ‘star’ in Jared Sullinger, who can be as dominant inside as any name in the tournament on any given day. Starting with a rock-solid point guard, the Buckeyes have a cast of characters with the potential to mount a successful March run. So who is the key?

I say it’s DeShaun Thomas.

Yes, we need more consistency out of Buford. No, Smith can’t put up goose eggs as a 2-guard and expect us to win. Sullinger must be focused and engaged, Craft needs to take care of the ball and put guys where they belong and the bench needs to contribute more than the 1 point they recorded in a loss to Wisconsin last week. But we need a spark. We need our Kemba Walker. We need a go to guy when teams decide to remove Sullinger from our game plan.

DeShaunMar1DeShaun is easily the hottest Buckeye as of late, averaging more than 21ppg over his last six. That is precisely the momentum that needs carried into tournament time. That’s the second half of a one-two punch that, if sustained over a stretch, can carry a team like Ohio State to a title. That’s the role Buford was meant to hold down for the Buckeyes but has failed to do so. DeShaun has stepped up, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Thomas’ performance this Sunday could tell us all we need to know about what we’re going to see in the tournament from him. He’s on a roll now, and Sunday’s game is the perfect storm for an evaluation of heart and guts. Thomas went just 2-12 for eight points in Ohio State’s first match-up with Sparty two weeks ago. This time around he’s on a hot streak and playing for all of the B1G regular season marbles.

Will he step up, or melt in the fire? Will the Buckeyes come to play as a unit, or look second-tier as they did in the first go around with Michigan State?

Plenty of factors go into a March run, luck included, but we’re about to see exactly what Ohio State is made of.