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Sullinger, freshmen loom large as Buckeyes leave Illinois unbeaten

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- College basketball's player of the year race could come down to a matter of taste. Each of the three leading candidates have been brilliant in their own way. BYU senior Jimmer Fredette has hit three-pointers from just inside halfcourt, and scored 47 points in a game. UConn junior Kemba Walker is the King of Clutch, rescuing the Huskies with late-game heroics on at least four occasions. The work of Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger, who destroyed Illinois with 27 points and 16 rebounds here on Saturday, is more like a battering ram. He progressively weakens opponents -- and eventually breaks them -- with a series of blows, from the left block, from the right block, through bodies, through arms, and particularly against the Illini, from the free-throw line, where he went 13-of-15 in a 73-68 victory.

Sold-out Assembly Hall, with its student section lining one side of the floor in Spider-Man masks and Hulk hands and troll wigs, screaming at point-blank range into the ears of Buckeyes' inbounders, was a logical place for the nation's No. 1 team to finally lose. The Big Ten's best six teams, entering Saturday, were 19-0 at home, and the 23rd-ranked Illini tend to be dead-eye shooters in their own building. Ohio State came to Champaign 19-0, as one of four undefeated teams in the country (predating Kansas' loss on Saturday), and found itself down 50-42 at the 12-minute mark of the second half. A court-storming upset seemed to be in the works.

It was the Buckeyes' seniors -- Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale -- who spoke up then in a timeout, reminding the rookies they'd been in hostile conditions before, and overcome bigger deficits to win. But it was the fearless freshman who did much of the work, starting with Sullinger, who bulled his way through an Illinois front line that had the length (Mike Tisdale is 7-foot-1, Meyers Leonard is 7-0, and Mike Davis is 6-9) but not the strength to stop him, as he scored 16 second-half points, aided by a 9-of-10 performance from the free throw line.

A Sullinger game typically involves a series of heated exchanges between coaches and officials, because refereeing him is not easy. He cannot be defended one-on-one -- Illinois had to use what Sullinger would call a "semi-double-team," with a second big lurking in the paint -- and every play involves contact. In the first half, there was OSU coach Thad Matta, imploring ref John Higgins to do something about the Illini who were (allegedly) pushing Sullinger in the back; in the second half, Illinois coach Bruce Weber fiercely stared down the men in stripes as they sent Sullinger to the line for six attempts in the final 4:18. The views on which whistles were appropriate, as you can suspect, varied widely from bench to bench.

"When [Sullinger]'s making free throws, it's pretty impossible to stop him, because he does such a great job of using his body to get position, and going up through people and drawing contact," Diebler said. "Early on in the season, teams were just saying, foul him, we'll make him shoot free throws. Well, he's making them [now]."

Sullinger's season high in free-throw attempts was against IUPUI in December, when he went 16-of-23 from the stripe en route to scoring 40 points. IUPUI has been the only team this season with the audacity to defend him one-on-one in the post. Sullinger doesn't have a wide array of post moves, and the Illini forced him into a series of fadeaways in the first half (when Tisdale also had three blocks), when he shot 4-of-10 for 11 points. But he fought harder for position in the second, backing down and spinning to the basket more aggressively, giving Illinois no choice but to foul. "Jared just wears people down," Diebler said, "and we felt they really didn't have an answer for him tonight, so we had to keep feeding the hot hand."

Diebler, a notorious Illini-killer who had 17 threes in two games against them last season, also did excellent work on offense in the second half, scoring nine points (to finish with 15). But it was a freshman, Deshaun Thomas, who hit the two huge, right-wing threes that changed the game's momentum. Thomas' first trey tied it at 50-50 with 9:29 left, and his second put the Buckeyes up 56-50 with 7:47 left. After it swished, Matta turned to his bench and said, "It's about time!" Thomas has never been shy about shooting -- he said, "I always come off the bench ready to score," and he takes an absurd 30.5 percent of OSU's shots when he's on the floor, while Sullinger only takes 24.4 percent. But Thomas hadn't connected from long range since Dec. 23 against Oakland, going on an 0-of-9 slump between then and Saturday.

The third freshman in Ohio State's rotation, point guard Aaron Craft, failed to connect on a three, or do much scoring at all (he had five points), but came up huge on defense. He's a reserve who plays starter minutes -- 31 against the Illini, while actual starter Lauderdale played 11 -- and Craft spent much of his time guarding senior Demetri McCamey, whom Matta said "might be the best point guard in the country this year." Ex-Buckeye Evan Turner, the Wooden Award winner who helped rout Illinois in Assembly Hall last season, Tweeted something similar earlier in the week: "My boy demetri mccamey is arguably the best pg in college basketball. Just doesn't have the hype. He the real deal tho." McCamey had been great, coming into the game averaging 16.2 points and 7.2 assists while shooting 52.5 percent from long range.

But by halftime, with the Illini leading 34-33, McCamey had yet to score a single point. At the 15-minute mark in the second half, he was still stuck on zero. He had an opportunity to inject himself in the All-America conversation with a huge game against the No. 1-ranked team ... but it took him until 14:30 to hit his first shot, a three, and he finished with just five points and turned the ball over four times -- three more than Craft did. "I just tried to stay in front of him," Craft said, "because he's at his best when he's getting in the lane and creating."

Craft did an excellent job of fighting over ball screens to contest McCamey's shots, and stopped two of his drives by taking charges -- the first of which resulted in McCamey's second foul, at the 5:43 mark in the first half. Weber was forced to send his point guard to the bench until halftime, and McCamey never found a way to energize his team and make a real impact on the game. For that reason, Matta called Craft "a little bit of an unsung hero."

The guy he fed repeatedly in the post, meanwhile, was the obvious hero. Craft was also Sullinger's teammate on the All-Ohio Red AAU squad, and he said: "I've seen Jared do this for three years now. It takes a lot of pressure off of everyone else, just knowing that, when you throw him the ball, he's going to make the right decision. And he wants it in his hands at the end of the game -- that's what makes him great."

The Buckeyes' freshmen displayed an unexpected level of calm in his game, one that suggests they won't be fazed by road trips to Northwestern (on Jan. 29), Minnesota (Feb. 6), Wisconsin (Feb. 12), Purdue (Feb. 20) and Penn State (March 1). Those are what likely stand between them and an undefeated regular season. Matta said his players haven't talked -- at all -- about running the table. Given the strength of the Big Ten this season, such a feat seems improbable. But Ohio State has exceeded all expectations thus far, so why say it's impossible? Few expected Craft to have such composure as a point guard so early in his career, or Thomas to be such a fearless scorer, or Sullinger to be right in the thick of the national player of the year race. In his postgame press conference, Matta was initially modest about his super-frosh, saying only, "I thought Jared was pretty good today."

The coach then paused, smiled, and said, "That was a joke. He was awesome."

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