How do you stop the Buckeyes? Don't ask the Boilermakers
The good times have come and gone and come again for David Lighty.
He has seen a lot in five years playing basketball at Ohio State: Six teammates taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. Ten NCAA tournament games, including one title game lost. Two Big Ten titles. He knows a lot about winning, having done it 116 times. And because he has played in an OSU-record 141 games, Lighty knows a lot, period.
Here's what he wanted to know Tuesday night, after the top-ranked Buckeyes toyed with No. 12 Purdue, in an easy 87-64 win:
"Where do you start to stop us?''
Good question. The Buckeyes ran to their 21st consecutive win with minimal contribution from Jared Sullinger, the team's 6-foot-9 freshman prodigy. The final stats showed a productive night for Sullinger: 17 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes. But while the Buckeyes were rolling to early domination, Sullinger was playing a bit part. He had four points in the first half, which ended with the Buckeyes ahead by 20, 46-26.
That's because everyone else was so good. Which prompts the question: If Ohio State can blast the nation's No. 12 with Sullinger's playmates doing the heavy lifting, what happens when Sullinger joins the fun?
The temptation in January, after games like this, is to wonder how high the bar should be set. Ohio State hasn't won it all since 1960. Lighty doesn't suggest this is the year the school will hang its next banner. He doesn't refute the notion, either.
"If we play defense and share the wealth like we did today,'' he said. "It's about doing it consistently. If we don't do that, all our dreams will be gone.''
Lighty was a freshman the year the Buckeyes lost to Florida in the title game. He says this team is better offensively than the one Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. led in 2007.
"We have so many guys to pick up the other guys,'' was how Lighty explained it. They also have Sullinger, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman whose presence is so beastly that he's effective simply being on the floor. It's Basketball 101: Ball goes into him, he draws the double team, he kicks ball out and a wide open, grateful shooter launches a three-pointer.
Or as Lighty put it, "When the ball comes out from that double team, it's pitch and catch.''
The Buckeyes blistered Purdue in the first half, making six of nine threes. They finished the game a slightly more modest 11-of-19. The Bucks might not shoot 58 percent from three-point range all the time, but they have enough long-range assassins that it's always a possibility: Four Buckeyes make at least 40 percent of their threes.
When you have Sullinger roaming the middle like a nose tackle and four players sniping from long range, you can be somewhat difficult to defend. As Purdue coach Matt Painter acknowledged, "Sullinger's unselfishness is tough to defend. When you put shooters around him with that kind of skill and maturity, it's tough.''
Painter didn't appreciate what he saw with his team's lack of passion early. "The major issue was competing. It was lacking," he said. "Ohio State was ready to roll. They stole our spirit.'' Honestly, it wouldn't have mattered. The Boilermakers might have added a few rebounds, grabbed a loose ball or two, maybe boxed out a little better.
But the way the Buckeyes were pouring points through the hoop, a little more try-hard from the visitors wouldn't have tilted the wheel.
William Buford started the game with a three-pointer for Ohio State, then he hit another a minute later. Then Jon Diebler played longball, then Aaron Craft, then ...
Oh, forget it.
It was 19-5 barely seven minutes into the game. How talented are the Buckeyes? Craft, a cheeky freshman, leads the team in assists and steals and doesn't even start. He went 1-on-2 on a break and instead of pulling the ball out, drove to the hoop and scored over 6-foot-10 JaJuan Johnson, on a spin move in the lane. That made it 26-9 and ended the evening's discussion.
Excellence shouldn't be so routine. Not against the supposed 12th-best team in the country. Purdue had won 17 of 20. Its best player was also its hottest. Johnson, the senior center, had averaged 25 points a game in the Boilermakers' previous four. His head-to-head with Sullinger was supposed to be Tuesday's main event.
As it was, Johnson produced after it mattered, and Sullinger's presence was hardly needed at all.
But where the Boilers couldn't survive Johnson's early funk, the Buckeyes thrived without Sullinger's scoring force.
Where do you start to stop them?
When they shoot from the wings the way they did Tuesday and play without ego on both ends of the floor, you don't.
"This is the first time we came out and played a complete game,'' Lighty said.
Someone wondered if, in this winter of supposed parity in college basketball, the Buckeyes could make a case for dominance. "I'd say we were dominant today,'' Lighty said.
The last time a Buckeyes team won its first 21 games was in 1962. They lost in the national title game that year. A chance to erase that memory exists this season.