Bucks Host Gators, Face Huge Test

The Ohio State basketball team has had to grow up fast. Whether it is worthy of the No. 3 national ranking will be put at risk when the Buckeyes host No. 7 Florida in Value City Arena Tuesday night.

Aaron Craft gazed onto the national college basketball scene.

He didn't find what he was looking for.

"I don't think you can go throughout the country and name five or six great teams," Ohio State's sophomore point guard said. "There are a lot of teams that have a lot of potential and a lot of upside. But at this point of the season there aren't very many phenomenal teams that just stick out, you know?"

Perhaps after his No. 3 Buckeyes host No. 7 Florida at 8 p.m. Tuesday night in Value City Arena in a pivotal non-conference matchup, one of the two teams could emerge to take the national spotlight.

It was nearly the identical scenario a year ago – the Buckeyes, then ranked No. 4, traveled to then-No. 9 Florida and knocked off the Gators in Gainesville, 93-75, arriving immediately as one of the best team's in the nation.

This year it is Ohio State's second game again. It has had to grow up quickly.

"This is really going to be a good test of where this basketball team stands," said sophomore big man Jared Sullinger, who scored 19 points against the Gators a year ago in his first major college matchup. "It's really going to help us develop who can be out there and who cannot be out there."

A year ago the Buckeyes relied on Craft and Sullinger – two freshmen – to help the team win at Florida, but veterans who had long been used to national matchups surrounded the two youngsters.

The rise of Craft happened in just 29 minutes of basketball in Gainesville. Handling the full-court Florida pressure the entire game – his first taste of such a constant press at this level – Craft helped the Buckeyes force 18 turnovers before running away with the victory.

"He was stoic," Matta said of Craft, who turned over Florida point guard Erving Walker seven times. "He showed no signs of being a freshman in his first road game. And his ability to do what we were asking him to do, and do it at the level he did it, I was just very, very pleased with his performance."

Ohio State again will lean on Sullinger and Craft against the Gators, this time at home. However, the veteran presence of Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale are long gone. The two sophomores, along with senior guard William Buford, are the veterans now.

Far away from settling on his main rotation, Matta will likely find out who is ready to be main contributors to this year's team. In Ohio State's season-opening win over Wright State, everyone on the roster played.

Against Florida, the head coach won't have the luxury of allowing youthful players stay on the court to learn from their errors. He'll likely go with who handles the pressure the best. Which players that will be, Matta said, is still to be determined.

"I'm curious to see how guys react and what they do out there," he said.

Speaking like a veteran despite being only 12 months removed from living the unproven freshman role, Craft said he was quietly confident in his ability to play the way he did. Sullinger said he knew that's what Craft was capable of from the beginning.

Tonight names such as sophomore Lenzelle Smith Jr., who is coming off his first career regular-season start, sophomore Jordan Sibert, and freshman Shannon Scott are all expected to play pivotal roles for the Buckeyes.

"It's going to be an eye-opening experience to see how everyone is going to handle themselves," Craft said. "I have a lot of confidence in them. They have come in willing to be coached and willing to listen. They come in every day wanting to get better. We know they can come out there and, as long as they relax and play within themselves, they're going to get done whatever needs to get done."

Florida (1-0) returns Walker and Kenny Boynton from last year's squad and Matta commented about the veteran play from the position. Matching up with Sullinger is sophomore Patric Young, a 6-9, 247-pound athletic big man. The Gators knocked off Jackson State in its season-opener Friday by 40 points.

"I love playing a game like this," Sullinger said. "They have a team that comes in and they like to transition and they like to shoot 3s, they like to score. And they're also physical down low. This really determines what type of a team we are. Are we strong enough to handle the transition 3s back to back and then come down and score? Or are we just going to crumble?"

Matta said he isn't concerned with how his team would respond to a potential loss. Instead, the head coach was more pleased with the opportunity to gain valuable experience this early in the year.

"You could poll our team and they know that we have a lot of work to do," Matta said. "This is a very good barometer for us to kind of figure out where we are on Nov. 15."

The team can't wait to see where that is.

Follow Me on Twitter and find us on Facebook.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories