That's life in college basketball, where highs and lows are typically prevalent given the parity the sport always features, specifically when it comes to highly-talented conferences like the Big Ten.
It hasn't been a pretty few weeks for the No. 10 Buckeyes, who enter its final game at Michigan State having split their last six. But at the end of the day – or shall I say, year – the Buckeyes still have a shot at attaining its first goal. For now, that should seem like a bonus since it was all but written off Sunday evening.
Before we take a look at what now is turning out to be an incredible regular season finale in East Lansing Sunday, lets take a gander at Ohio State's bounce-back win at Northwestern Wednesday night. The game was nothing if it wasn't exciting.
• Is Jared Sullinger back? – That's a tough question to answer because what really was wrong with Sullinger? Was it truly focusing too much on the refs? Was he disappointed in the team's inability to efficiently feed the post? Or is he hiding an injury? All of those things have been discussed and maybe there's some truth to those assertions. However, the sophomore played an aggressive brand of basketball that ended up with 22 points and 18 rebounds, 10 of which were on the offensive glass.
It was one of the most aggressive games Sullinger has played in months, but how much of that was his rejuvenation and how much of it was the lack of size Northwestern had to compete with his dominant presence? He told the media that he was focused on the wrong things on Tuesday, and kudos for him for being candid about it. However, I think it's best to reserve comments about Sullinger and his mythical return until after we see how he plays on the road against real big men on Sunday.
• Bothered by the refs? – The one thing I will say about Sullinger is that if he really isn't going to allow the referees to get to him anymore, he had a funny way of showing it. There were multiple times against Northwestern where the sophomore acted a little childish – especially late in the game where he threw the ball over his head after a crucial jump ball call went Northwestern's way (it was the correct call, too). Perhaps it was overblown a tad, but any signs of frustration about calls seems to be wasted energy. If he is really letting the referee thing go – do it completely. The only thing he can control is the next play, so let Thad Matta worry about the officiating. If anything, acting like that probably makes the refs less likely to want to do things his way as the game progresses.
• Lenzelle Smith Jr. takes it to another level – The sophomore shooting guard has had some good games this year, but I think I was most impressed with this one. Though I've struggled with his lack of production offensively in the recent weeks, it really hit me that he means so much more to this team than how much he's scoring. There is an energy level he brings certain games that lifts this team emotionally, and I thought we saw that at the beginning of the win.
Not only did he score the team's first four points, but Smith was all over the place. He just looked so much faster, and typically has in games where he's made an impact. He did a very good job facilitating the offense and he made some incredible passes before finishing the game with seven assists. I'm not sure what Matta has to do to make this a consistent thing for Smith – but when he plays this level of basketball Ohio State is incredibly more dangerous.
• Aaron Craft – just shoot it – I don't know many games where Ohio State will lose when Sullinger has a double-double and four of the Buckeyes' five starters score in double figures. I don't know any game where Ohio State will lose if Craft is knocking down 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. Craft has shown an ability to knock down some big shots, but all season he's been incredibly shy about shooting it – even when he's wide open. Maybe the coaching staff made it a point to tell him to attack because he knocked down every big shot he took tonight. I realize that he won't be this efficient shooting every game, but he has looks every game. It's simple math when opponents are doubling Sullinger. The second he stops being so shy – or hesitant – with his shot selection is the second he becomes a bigger offensive weapon and Ohio State becomes incredibly more difficult to defend. I guess my point is simple – Aaron, don't be so bashful.
• William Buford is…. Inconsistent – It is what it is. That's who he is. You never know what you're going to get out of him, which I guess has to be a pretty uncomfortable realization for Matta. However, with Buford, I don't think he played a terrible game against the Wildcats. Though he couldn't find his stroke – he finished 3-of-10 from the floor – the senior added six rebounds and four assists. His game wasn't pleasing to watch, especially when he missed on all four of his shot attempts from beyond the arc, but it is the games where he is 2-of-14 that are really going to cripple the Buckeyes. As long as he can contribute in other facets of the game when he's not shooting well, I still think he needs to be on the floor.
• Deshaun Thomas is really coming on – It was kind of a quiet performance, but Thomas had 19 points and 10 rebounds in this one, and really seemed to be contributing all over the floor. Not only is he a ferocious offensive rebounder – which comes in handy a lot of the time in crucial parts of the game – but he is even starting to find the stroke on his jumper. If you take a look at his four games, he's probably playing the best basketball of his sophomore year. If all these guys can keep it going, perhaps Ohio State will be more dangerous than people wanted to give them credit for just two days ago?
• Looking ahead – For those of you who read my BSB story, you know how I feel about predicting the NCAA Tournament. I won't do it until I see the matchups. However, it does seem like OSU is going to be in line for an easier draw than it had last year – I know, I know – and that could translate into a deeper run. Though I think last year's team was better (I still think it was the best in college basketball last year) the Big Dance is all about matchups.
As far as trending upward, this Buckeyes team has to be on an emotional high right now. When you figure they thought their chances at the Big Ten championship were dead yesterday morning, it's hard not to imagine how much enthusiasm is flowing through that locker room. If they some how win on Sunday, could the team have finished on better terms? I don't think so – even if they would have won it outright. Perhaps things haven't been pleasing the last few weeks, but there is still a lot to look forward to in my opinion. Stay tuned.