Ohio State gets lift from unlikely source in rout of No. 7 Indiana
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Drawing up a game plan for Ohio State doesn't seem so hard. The Buckeyes have four starters who can score, and one who can't, or at least hasn't. You take your five and play their four. You double-team Jared Sullinger close to the basket, you stay in the faces of William Buford, Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas. You hope it works out.
What happens when the fifth guy starts scoring?
Indiana found out Sunday. "Lenzelle was averaging four shots a game," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "You could look it up.''
That's a fact. That Lenzelle Smith Jr. picked Sunday afternoon to take 12 shots, make 10 of them, score 28 points and absolutely wreck the Hoosiers said less about the shortcomings of Indiana than it did about the potential of Ohio State. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes' 80-63 dismantling of No. 7 IU was so complete, Crean wasn't even all that upset about it afterward.
"They could win the national championship with that," Crean declared. "That's what they had last year. Five guys that could score."
The Hoosiers had beaten the Buckeyes once already, at home on New Year's Eve. They'd also toppled then-top ranked Kentucky. After three years of loitering in the basketball abyss, Crean has the Hoosiers back in Top 25 business in his fourth season.
Indiana has been a nice, little story. Ohio State is a nice, big story. Again.
Start with Sullinger. He has dropped 25 pounds. While none appear to have vanished from his, um, center of gravity, located largely in his gluteus maximus, the lighter Sullinger plays taller than he did last year as a freshman.
But it's the 6-9, 265-pound Sullinger's passing that fascinates most experts, and confounds opposing coaches. "You can't let him catch it," Crean said. "When he doesn't have a move and that double-team comes, he reverses (the ball). That ball moves."
In the first half Sunday, Sullinger's target was Smith Jr. Why? Because he was open.
"I just saw my man leave me," Smith explained. "We had some plays for that and we immediately went to them."
At one point midway through the first half, Smith hurried a pull-up jumper, which missed. At the next timeout, he apologized. "My bad," he said, to which Sullinger replied, "You're on. Keep shooting.''
So Smith did. A sophomore who has kept his spot in the lineup mainly because no one else has been proficient enough to take it from him, Smith scored 18 points in 17 minutes in the first half. Its game plan in shambles, Indiana trailed 35-14 at intermission.
In the second half, when the Hoosiers decided to pay attention to Smith, he simply returned the kick-out passes from Sullinger. The big man had two points in the first half, but 14 in the second.
"The first couple times I kicked it out, they were still (guarding Smith), so he kicked it back to me," Sullinger said.
It can be such an easy game, when you have good players. That's why Crean can look at the Buckeyes and see nets around their necks in early April. "The biggest thing they were missing was (Jon) Diebler," said Crean, referring to the graduated sharpshooter who was the best three-point threat in the Big Ten last winter. "He could take a shot and make a shot any time he wanted."
OSU coach Thad Matta had been seeking a Diebler clone. He has used Smith and fellow sophomore Jordan Sibert, with limited results. No one knows if Sunday was an aberration or a trend for Smith. Everyone agrees that if it becomes a trend, the Buckeyes are big trouble for the rest of quasi-amateur hoop nation.
Regardless, they clearly were not going to let their 74-70 loss at IU 16 days ago go unpunished. "Revenge," Sullinger had said simply last week, when asked what concerned him about the rematch with the Hoosiers.
In case the fans had missed the point, pregame festivities Sunday featured a few, hasty clips from that first game, on the video board perched above the court at Value City Arena. Last time was in Indiana ...
"This is Ohio" was the message, as the Hoosiers entered the court. "Home of Bobby Knight.''
When the Buckeyes weren't admiring Smith playing Pop-a-Shot, they put up airtight defense. "We gave these guys 17 layups the first game. We decided, not today," Sullinger said. Or, putting it differently, "We just wanted to get up in their jockstraps, according to coach Matta."
Indiana came in shooting 50 percent as a team, and making 46 percent of its three-pointers. The Hoosiers shot 27 percent in the first half. They had twice as many turnovers (12) as field goals. Once in the first half, the Hoosiers had to burn a timeout because they couldn't inbound the ball. When play resumed, the Buckeyes stole the inbound pass. It was that sort of day.
"They've got learn what it takes to be there," was how Crean described his team. "It's a hard game. The better the competition, the harder it is. We have to understand when we play well, why we play well.''
Consider it a teachable moment, then.
Only, what do you learn from a game in which the only player you feel safe ignoring burns you for 28?
How close to greatness the other guys are, perhaps. And the distance your still have to go.