Despite the No. 2 Buckeyes' 78-67 loss to No. 13 Kansas on the road Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse, Matta felt it would be best to keep star sophomore big man Jared Sullinger out for the second consecutive game as he heals up from back spasms.
No loss is easy to swallow – especially one that was penciled in on the schedule as one of the premier matchups in non-conference basketball this season – but Ohio State will return to Columbus with plenty to build off of.
Here are some of the observations taken away from Ohio State's latest game:
• Ohio State isn't the same team without Sullinger – Ohio State isn't going to use this as an excuse, but the Buckeyes simply had no match for Kansas' Thomas Robinson without Sullinger. The sophomore big man is so instrumental in Ohio State's inside-out offensive rhythm and his prowess on the boards and defense was missed sorely. Even without Sullinger in this game Ohio State had its chances to take control and it didn't, but I think it is clear that this Buckeyes' team is completely different without Sullinger on the floor. That isn't much of an observation given Sullinger is one of the best players in all of college basketball, but I think not having him on the floor effected too many things in too many different areas for the team to knock off a squad like Kansas on the road.
• Deshaun Thomas showed up in second-consecutive big game – While Ohio State couldn't make a shot in the first half – which included senior William Buford – Thomas was busy keeping Ohio State in the ball game. Making three shots from beyond the arc before finishing the first half with 15 points, Thomas picked up from where he left off in the Duke game to keep Ohio State within striking distance of the Jayhawks at the break. Despite getting beaten by Robinson on more than a few occasions, Thomas played about as well you could have hoped for. Though his offensive output went down in the second half, his ability to step up in big games is going to be needed as the season progresses. I said before the game that I think this team will be made or broken by Thomas' and given the circumstances of the game its safe to say he passed the test.
• But what about Buford? – Ohio State was in the ucomfortable situation for nearly the first 30 minutes of the game because Buford was nowhere to be found. Though he caught fire late in the second half and had a run where he scored 12 of 15 OSU points, Buford wasn't a factor in this game for way too long. He is a senior leader and has to be consistent scoring, even if it isn't in bunches. At one point he was 1-of-8 from the floor and it is a scary thought for this team that was already out of options with Sullinger in street clothes on the bench.
The good news you can take away from Buford's performance was that he was able to shoot his way out of the miserable performance to end up scoring a team-high 21 points, which is something he wasn't able to do in last year's NCAA Tournament loss at Kentucky. The bad news is that there was a large portion of time in this game where the senior simply wasn't a factor.
• There are no difference-makers off the bench - I don't know if it is because Thad Matta doesn't like playing his bench or if there is nobody good enough to rely on, but Ohio State doesn't have anybody who can come in and provide a spark off the bench. Unfortunately for Ohio State it is going to have days out of its best players where the ball is going down and it is going to need a seventh or eighth man that can come off the bench and knock down a few big jumpers to get things back on track. Great teams always have guys like this, particularly in March. I am not sure if that's something that can be worked on or something that is just there, but Matta won't ever find out if he doesn't check other guys into the game. Last year this happened when Buford was off against Kentucky and OSU didn't have an answer off the bench. Then the Buckeyes' season ended because of it.
• With the way Kansas was turning the ball over - I thought it would have made some sense to try and push the tempo, especially with Sullinger out of the game. The lineup OSU had on the floor would have been able to run a little more and maybe it would have given Kentucky a hard time with protecting the basketball. It is hard to question Matta's strategy given he knows what his team does best, but it seemed like the opportunity was out there to kind of get things sped up a little bit.
• Amir Williams isn't ready - That was baptism by fire. Though Williams didn't look terrible out there, Kansas had the advantage on the mismatch with Robinson whenever the freshman big man was on the floor. It's hard to pick on a freshman making his road debut against a projected lottery pick at Kansas, but I think it is clear that Ohio State paid the price for that mismatch on more than a handful of possessions.
• Given the circumstances of the game, a lot to be positive about - Name the reasons why this was going to be a tough test for OSU. It was the first road game in Allen Fieldhouse of all places, Sullinger was out, and Kansas is a very good basketball team. However, despite times where it looked like Kansas was going to run away with the game Ohio State always kept its cool and always fought back. Without Sullinger on the floor this team is not nearly as good as it is when its at its best, yet the Buckeyes hung in there against what most consider to be one of the best basketball teams in the country.
This loss won't do anything bet help Ohio State's chances as the season goes on, as it proved to me that it has a lot to learn but doesn't lack in toughness. It was the right thing to do to keep Sullinger out of the game. It was best to keep him in healing mode, it lets the team face some early adversity, and it can go back knowing a lot more about itself. This loss won't hinder OSU from NCAA Tournament positioning and this will be one of those games this team builds on from a lot more than it would from a win against a subpar opponent.