There will be a full game preview as well later today, but first an interview. Earlier this week I answered some questions for the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors about the game this weekend, and today I have Chris from the site to reciprocate.
RCT: Aaron Craft is known as one of the best on ball defenders in the country, but what struck me watching him this year vs. last year is how much his offense has improved. What do you think is the biggest reason for this? Is he deferring to other players less now that there's no Diebler and Lighty around, is he simply a better shooter or something else?
11W: I would agree that the loss of Diebler and Lighty has opened up a few more shot opportunities for Craft. He’s definitely looking to score off penetration more than he did last year partly because Thad has asked him to and partly because there aren’t as many weapons to kick out to beyond the arc – at least not until LaQuinton Ross steps on the court to complement William Buford now that the NCAA clearinghouse has said he can return to OSU effective 12/9.
It’s still very early in the season but I’m not ready to say Craft is a better shooter this year. He was lethal against Duke hitting 3 of 4 from downtown but that was an anomaly as he’s just 2/11 from deep in Ohio State’s other seven games to date. It’s been said he spent the summer shooting hundreds of threes per day but that has yet to translate thus far. His overall FG% is up two points from 46% to 48% but eight games is too small of a sample size to get excited one way or the other. For my money, I want Craft doing what he does best offensively – driving the lane and dishing off or finishing when the opportunity presents itself. One aspect of his offensive game that I will say has improved tremendously is his willingness to pull up and hit a 12-15 foot jumper instead of kicking it out or taking it all the way to rack when maybe it’s not there.
Bottom line, his overwhelming value to this team is stifling defense. At the other end of the floor, his value is in being a facilitator of the offense via excellent vision and dribble penetration versus shooting jumpers from 18+ feet.
RCT: I thought Jared Sullinger wouldn't be as dominant this year because with no Diebler and Lighty to kick it out to, and worse three point shooting, he would be subjected to more double teams. Ohio State hasn't shot the three well, but Sullinger is still dominant. What is it about his game that makes him so good?
11W: It’s hard to pick out just one thing because he is such a solid overall player but I think the number one aspect of Sullinger’s game that makes him dominant is his ability to use his size so that when he receives an entry pass he is in position to score on the low block. From there, he has the ability to either go straight up or put the ball on the floor going either left or right via a variety of go-to post moves. He’s not going to jump over a defender but he uses shot fakes and a wide frame to create space allowing him to get shots off in the paint. He’s obviously also a beast on the glass using size, nimble feet and sheer will to grab his share of rebounds. He’s had four double-doubles already this year (7 games) and had 18 in 37 games as a freshman.
Though his strength is in the paint, he’s also very adept at facing up and driving or hitting midrange jumpers from all areas on the floor. During the off season we heard a lot talk about Matta wanting to showcase his perimeter talents more often – and Sullinger has already attempted 7 threes in 7 games while shooting only 12 in 37 games last season – but I struggle with accepting that strategy as what’s best for the team. Kansas will want to pay attention to him from 17 foot but beyond that I think defenses would be thrilled to see him settle for longer jumpers from time to time.
Another aspect of his game that is sometimes overlooked is his ability to find the open man especially out of a double team. This skill alone has decreased the amount of double teams he has seen despite the fact OSU doesn’t boast as many three point bombers as they did last season. His assist totals don’t necessarily tell the full story with this as he often gets “hockey assists” because the Buckeyes are so unselfish in making the extra pass.
RCT: I get yelled at whenever I break out the hockey talk, so that comment might not fly, but I digress. Ohio State is definitely one of the best teams in the country right now, but with four Sophomores in the starting lineup do you think their lack of experience will hurt them in the NCAA tournament?
11W: I really don’t think youth will be a determining factor in Ohio State’s season. Buford is as battle tested as they come and is showing senior leadership according to the players and coaches. Sure, Sullinger and Craft are sophomores but they were obviously key cogs last year as they averaged 31 and 29 minutes respectively on a team that lost to Kentucky in the East regional semifinals. Additionally, they got to observe and absorb the outstanding leadership qualities Lighty and Diebler put forth.
For me, the most concerning issue is lack of inside depth if Sullinger gets in foul trouble against an opponent with a big frontline come March. Evan Ravenel, a thick 6’8” transfer from Boston College has played beyond the expectations of many and Deshaun Thomas, at an athletically lean 6’7” can certainly get hot and score from inside and out but those two are it when it comes to the 4 and 5 spots. Amir Williams is a McDonald’s All-American and can alter a few shots but the 6’11” freshman is a year away from having any type of impact and clearly looks to be a project offensively.
RCT: Obviously everyone knows about Craft and Sullinger, but both William Buford and Deshaun Thomas have been excellent as well. Give KU fans a little introduction to their games and what makes them so good.
11W: In my opinion, Buford is one of the most underrated players in college basketball. He is a born scorer and one of a dying breed of players featuring a great midrange game. While he can get to the rack off the dribble drive, often times he will stop on a dime and pull up from 13-17 and hit that shot with a high degree of accuracy. He’s also improved his three point shooting every year he’s been here increasing it from 36% accuracy as a freshman to 44% last year as a junior. Early in his senior season, he’s hitting at a 46% clip. The end result is a scoring average ranging from 11.3 as a frosh to 16.0 so far this year and that is while playing alongside some other great offensive players or else he would average more. He’s capable of busting out and carrying the team offensively in any given game and his shot selection and passing skills have evolved over the years. The guy can get his own shot and score in a variety of ways on a level that leads me to believe he eventually have a very nice career in the NBA.
Thomas is far less polished offensively, mostly due to age, and is dangerously streaky. A great example of this came against Duke earlier this month when Thomas scored the last nine OSU points of the half – and 13 of 17 overall – as the Buckeyes turned the game into a rout. The biggest criticism with Thomas is how often he shoots which goes hand in hand with sometimes questionable shot selection. That said, he can get on a roll and is also a very good offensive rebounder leading to plenty of second chance points. He has a good first step although he’s predictable in that he almost always goes to his left but rarely has a problem creating space to get his shot off. He doesn’t shoot it well from beyond the arc but unfortunately that doesn’t stop him from taking the open three instead of slashing to the rim.
RCT: What do you think are a couple of deficiencies that Kansas could take advantage of or what would you say are the keys for Kansas pulling the upset?
11W: I see two keys to this game. The first is the matchup of Aaron Craft versus your backcourt. I’ve only seen Kansas play twice but from those games, reading your site and looking at stats, the Jayhawks look like a team capable of turning it over at a ridiculously high rate. Couple that with Craft being the most pesky defensive point guard I’ve ever seen and I’ll be very interested to see how Tyshawn Taylor and/or Elijah Johnson handle Craft’s ball pressure. I know I sound like a homer but Craft is the most relentless perimeter defender I’ve ever seen. Even when not creating turnovers, he can stifle an offense by disrupting basic things such as entry passes to start set plays or pushing the point guard out so far that initiating the offense becomes a problem.
The second key is the matchup of Robinson versus Sullinger. I’ll write this assuming Sully is at 100% considering all reports claim he’ll be ready to play. Clearly, Robinson is the more athletic player and if can get Sullinger in foul trouble – something virtually no team has been able to do – that will force Thomas, Craft or someone else to help Buford score points, not to mention it will force Ravenel to try and contain Robinson when Kansas has the ball. Conversely, if Sullinger gets Robinson in foul trouble and/or earns a high number of trips the free throw line, OSU will be tough to beat.
RCT: Lastly give us a score prediction (with and without Sullinger if you want)
11W: If all reports are false and Sully can’t go, I don’t see Ohio State winning the game. Assuming Sully is fine, I’ll take Ohio State to win 75-69. It should be a great one in a fantastic setting for college hoops.