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March 11, 2011

Freshmen key to Bucks tourney run

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INDIANAPOLIS - Thad Matta can't recall just how many times he's been asked to compare this year's Ohio State team to the one that went to the Final Four in 2007.

But the head coach can probably remember the answer he's given each time.

And true to his form, Matta gave a similar response yet again when asked once more shortly after Ohio State's 67-61 overtime win over Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament Friday.

"I've been asked that a time or two throughout the course of the season, and I think that that team was so different than the team we have now," Matta said. "The pieces of the puzzle were just different where you had a driver, you've got a shooter, you had a shot blocker, you've got a guy that's a little bit more polished around the basket. There are just so many pieces."

The eagerness to compare the two teams is obvious. That team, backed by two freshmen in Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. reached the summit of college basketball during the regular season before winning the conference tournament.

Then, of course, that team advanced all the way to the Final Four before losing to Florida in the national championship game.

This year's team seems to be following in the footsteps. Having lost only two games all season, Ohio State is currently in the midst of a run in the Big Ten Tournament after finding the top spot in the final regular season polls.

If they'll get to the point where a comparison to the 2007 is viable is still something remains to be seen.

"I mean this - We're going to find out," Matta responded when asked if this year's squad has what it takes to make a big run in the NCAA Tournament. "I don't know what it's going to take. I think that team, like this team, had a togetherness. It was a team full of winners, as this team is."

But if one thing came abundantly clear in Ohio State's win over the Wildcats, a game that unexpectedly advanced into an overtime period, it's that the Buckeyes won't be punching their tickets to Houston, Texas without solid play from two young players.

Much like the 2007 relied on Coley and Oden to pick up the slack in March, this year's team is certainly leaning on the play of Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft.

"They aren't freshmen anymore," said junior guard William Buford. "They don't play like freshmen so we don't look at them like freshmen. We need them and they know we need them."

Though Ohio State hasn't quite reached the NCAA Tournament - which begins in roughly a week - the two freshmen were key players in the Buckeyes' close win over Northwestern.

Without them, Ohio State likely would be on its way home from Indianapolis with a first-round exit from the Big Ten Tournament.

"You know, to come in here for their first Big Ten Tournament and play at the level (these freshmen) played at, it's remarkable," Matta said. "We've been in these incredible environments and these guys have great poise and great composure."

Despite earning his excellent reputation on the defensive end, Craft helped Ohio State tremendously in the first half being going on the offensive.

The Buckeyes shot just 34.2 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes, but Craft scored the team's final seven points as part of a 9-0 run to open up a 5-point halftime lead.

Finishing with 17 points, Craft also was the main contributor in holding Northwestern's Michael Thompson to just 15 points a night after the man known as "Juice" scored a tournament-record 35 points.

"They came at us and we just didn't make shots," senior David Lighty said. "But we played good defense, and we kept going. Aaron Craft isn't a freshman. He plays like he's older than me."

Then the Buckeyes went to Sullinger - Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year - in the overtime period to bring home the close win. Despite shooting just 2-of-12 from the floor, Ohio State fed Sullinger repeatedly in overtime and he was fouled on five-consecutive possessions.

Though not attempting a field goal in overtime, Sullinger knocked down all 10 of his free throw attempts before finishing the game with 20 points and 18 rebounds. The rebounding total was just one short of the record Oden set in the 2007 conference tournament.

Despite being stacked with veterans, the true road toward the Final Four seems to go through the youngsters for the Buckeyes.

"I can't stand to lose, personally," Sullinger said. "If we'd lost this game, I'd probably be punching lockers, throwing stuff around. You've got to hate losing more than you love winning."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.



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