Sullinger, Craft important anchors as OSU faces new challenges
Jared Sullinger encouraged coach Thad Matta to recruit point guard Aaron Craft
OSU must fill holes left by Jon Diebler, David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale's depatures
Jordan Taylor will not be able to beat Ohio State without a strong supporting cast
As a junior at Ohio's Northland High in the spring of 2009, Jared Sullinger made an impromptu visit to Thad Matta. Sullinger had committed to the Buckeyes two years earlier, and had begun forging a relationship with his soon-to-be coach. With Northland location's 20 minutes east of campus, talks between the two were common.
This one was different, however. Sullinger went to Matta with a singular goal in mind: Convince him to recruit his friend and AAU teammate, point guard Aaron Craft.
"Jared came into my office and said, 'You need to offer Aaron Craft a scholarship,'" recalled Matta. "That was pretty much the end of it."
Two years later, the Buckeyes are reaping the rewards. Craft and Sullinger, now sophomores, have propelled Ohio State to the top of the preseason polls.
It's easy to see why. Sullinger averaged 17.1 points and 10.2 rebounds as a freshman, garnering first team All-America honors. He scored in double figures in all but three games, converting 54.1 percent of his field goals. After spurning the one-and-done culture for a second season in Columbus, he's primed for an even bigger year: He shed 15 pounds and developed a mid-range jumper to complement his back-to-the-basket approach. "I can switch it up," he said. "I think it's gonna help me out tremendously as far as double teams go."
Craft was similarly impressive, tallying 73 steals (first in the Big Ten), 177 assists (fourth) and a 13.0 plus-minus average, 11th in the nation. A former valedictorian at Ohio's Liberty-Benton High, he quickly became the brains behind the Buckeyes, a fact reflected by his increase in playing time: In Ohio State's first 14 games, Craft averaged 26.4 minutes. In its final 23, that number jumped to 31.6.
"You can't take his toughness, you can't take his mentality and you definitely can't his heart," said Sullinger. "You can't keep somebody like that off the floor."
The Buckeyes racked up 34 wins, second to only Kansas, and captured the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships. Now comes the hard part: replicating it.
This season poses a new set of challenges, none greater than filling the voids left by Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale. The graduating trio accounted for 41.8 percent of the team's minutes and 37.5 percent of its scoring last year. Their locker room leadership will also be missed by a roster made up predominantly of underclassmen.
Then there's the schedule. In addition to Big Ten showdowns with Michigan and Wisconsin (who beat Ohio State 71-67 to end its unbeaten season last February), the Buckeyes face a nonconference slate that includes Kansas, Duke and Florida (ranked 2nd, 3rd and 15th in the preseason, respectively) by mid-December. That could pose problems for any team, especially one as raw as Ohio State.
"The one thing I've told our guys is I don't have a drill to create experience," said Matta. "They've got to get it on the fly, and once we start playing games they come fast and furious."
That's a key revelation: The 2011-12 Buckeyes -- though immensely talented -- are unmistakably young. Growing pains are to be expected.
Outside of Sullinger, Craft and guard William Buford, the team's resident senior, Matta's rotation is littered with inexperience. Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon, Craft and Sullinger's AAU teammates, combined for just 263 minutes last season. Shooting guard Lenzelle Smith attempted a mere 20 field goals, and Amir Williams, a 6-foot-11 incoming freshman, could be thrust into a role as Sullinger's immediate interior counterpart.
Deshaun Thomas, a high upside swingman, should be particularly important. He'll look to improve on a freshman campaign when he appeared dangerous at times and wholly lost at others.
"Things have become a lot more intuitive to [Thomas]," said Matta. "Last year, he was trying to think things through while the game was going on. Now, he's just reacting and seeing things a lot quicker."
They'll mature, but there's a learning curve involved. Especially in the early going, Craft and Sullinger will be asked to pick up the slack. They've become de facto veterans.
"Jared and I understand that we have to be those leaders this year," said Craft. "The younger guys look up to us."
Of course, they should be up to the task. Sullinger and Craft have played together since 2006, dating to their tenure with the AAU All-Ohio Red. They've already experienced the highs and learned to cope with the lows.
"Aaron knows where I like the ball, I know where Aaron wants his picks," said Sullinger. "We never second guess each other."
Case in point: During the second round of last year's NCAA tournament against George Mason, Craft dished out 15 assists, the fourth most in tournament history. Four of them -- including a stunning half-court look to split a double team -- went to Sullinger.
For the Buckeyes to live up to their preseason billing, Craft will need to increase his scoring, Sullinger his defensive impact. They'll need to overcome their oft-overlooked youth and embrace newfound roles as motivators. Expectations, without question, are enormous.
But this much is certain: Ohio State will go as far as its super sophomores take it. Two years after lobbying for Craft's scholarship, Sullinger says it's exactly what he had in mind.
"Nothing has changed," he said. "As long as I'm winning, I'm happy."
Which Michigan State team will show up? Will it be last year's version, an underachieving 19-15 group, or the '08-'10 version, a team that advanced to back-to-back Final Fours? Fans should find out right away: The Spartans open the season against North Carolina on Nov. 11, and play Duke four days later on Nov. 15.
Can Northwestern end its tourney drought? The Wildcats remain the only major conference program never to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Is this the year they finally go dancing? If so, they'll need to replace Michael "Juice" Thompson. The gritty 5-10 point guard finished fourth in the NCAA in minutes per game last season (37.68).
Can Robbie Hummel stay healthy? Few players are more snake-bitten than Purdue's oft-injured forward, forced to miss all of last season with a twice-torn ACL. If he can stay on the court and Matt Painter can derive production out of Lewis Jackson and Terone Johnson, Purdue could serve as a Big Ten sleeper.
Who will help Jordan Taylor? Taylor notched an NCAA-record 3.83 assists-to-turnovers ratio last year, establishing himself as the nation's premier point guard. To top Ohio State, however, he'll need help from a now Jon Leuer-less supporting cast. Look for Josh Gasser, a 6-3 sophomore sharpshooter, to have some key opportunities beyond the arc.
Can Tom Crean turn Indiana around? Since becoming the Hoosier headman in 2008, Crean has gone 28-66, including a woeful 8-46 in conference. But there's reason for optimism in Bloomington. Three of the its top four scorers (Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III, Maurice Creek) return, joined by Cody Zeller, Tyler's brother and a former five-star recruit.