It hasn't been a month since Ohio State (27-6) went through a rough patch that had many questioning whether the Buckeyes were good enough to call themselves one of the best teams in the country. Four-consecutive wins and the feeling has changed.
"It kind of feels like we're back," sophomore point guard Aaron Craft told BSB. "But there is another game tomorrow and that feeling could go away if we don't stay focused on sustaining this momentum."
That game, of course, is against top-seeded Michigan State, the team the Buckeyes had to knock off a week ago to earn a share of the Big Ten title. Before we take a deeper look at that clash in the Big Ten Tournament title game, we take a step back and analyze the Ohio State's most recent win over the Wolverines.
• Everything is normal with Jared Sullinger – And the timing couldn't have been any more perfect for Ohio State. There were no thoughts of a potential injury and there were no grumblings about the inability to get him the ball in the paint. He started off the game hot and he finished it by helping the Buckeyes make a statement in blowout fashion. Sullinger fought for positioning, knocked down his jumper and worked hard on the glass on both sides of the court. It culminated in yet another dominating individual performance, as he scored 24 points and grabbed six rebounds. If he's playing this type of basketball, it's hard not to imagine Ohio State is one of the tougher outs in this year's NCAA Tournament.
• Aaron Craft is, well, Aaron Craft – The sophomore point guard's reputation has long been sealed as a great defender, but he put together one of his more impressive performances of the year against the Wolverines. Michigan is completely reliant on Trey Burke's ability to move the basketball around and create his own shot. Craft didn't allow the Big Ten Freshman of the Year to do either. Burke not only was unable to score with his usual proficiency – he finished with five points on 1-of-11 shooting – and the freshman also turned it over a career-high eight times.
On the offensive end, Craft was the ultimate facilitator. He was constantly setting Ohio State up to push the ball hard in transition and was finding open shooters on the offensive end. I noticed a few nice passes out of hard penetration to the rim and he even had a nice finish at the basket as the shot clock expired. Craft, who finished with four points and six assists, was the perfect piece for the Buckeyes offense this afternoon. Craft is supposedly dealing with an ankle issue, but his motor was running as hard as ever.
• Ball movement drastically improved – By this point in the season you'd think a team would already have its ability to swing the ball all over the court down. However, with some of the issues the Buckeyes have seemingly had in the recent weeks with the entry pass, that may have put a damper on it a little bit. Now that Sullinger is back and playing with level of confidence we haven't seen for weeks, it looks as if that stagnant offense is a thing of the past.
Not only was the team pushing the ball more off of misses and turnovers, good passing was a theme from just about everyone on the floor. All types of passes were being made efficiently – whether it was the entry pass, the outlet pass or just moving it around the perimeter for different looks. When Ohio State's moving the ball like this, it shoots better because of the good looks it is finding. It seems as if good ball movement is contagious and it looks like the Buckeyes have caught on to that as a team.
One last thought – when Ohio State is moving the ball this efficiently, the glaring weakness of outside shooting seems to be less of a detriment. Not only do wide-open looks tend to go in more, the deficiency isn't quite as noticeable because the team is scoring easier on the inside. If the Buckeyes are able to make one of their glaring weaknesses on the back-burner, that could directly translate into a lot more success.
• Pushing it – Ohio State took every opportunity to push the ball in transition, and I think a lot of that had to do with its confidence in moving the basketball around. Every time the ball clanked off the rim or a turnover happened, the Buckeye who snatched the ball was going full speed down the floor. Ohio State looked exponentially more comfortable in transition than they have in a long time – and that's a big part of this team's game. It thrives on forcing turnovers and scoring easy buckets out of those mistakes. Not setting up half-court sets to knock down jumpers. It kind of feels like OSU has found itself again.
• I was asked why Jordan Sibert doesn't play – I think it is a simple answer with Sibert – and it has to do with his productivity from beyond the arc. He was Ohio State's sixth man at the beginning of the year but he has shown now reliability as a shooter. Perhaps that's carried over to practice, as his role as been minimized more than I could have previously imagined. He hasn't proven to be a defensive stopper and he didn't show he can score in a variety of ways. So if neither of those things are true – why should he play?
• No. 1 seed back in play? – Ohio State is advancing to play Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament title game tomorrow. The Buckeyes just blew out one of the teams it tied for the regular season crown in and will face the other. If Ohio State beats Michigan State – which is going to be an incredibly tall order – the Buckeyes will have put together the resume worthy of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It won a piece of the championship in America's toughest conference and went into the tournament to protect that. Considering the team's success in the non-conference, it is hard to imagine an argument against Ohio State for a spot atop one of the regions.