INDIANAPOLIS -- Jared Sullinger admits that Ohio State didn’t always acknowledge its vulnerabilities during a tough stretch in February that featured three losses in five games, a rare lull under Thad Matta.
The practices weren’t as crisp as expected, either. Players didn’t complete key tasks. And the overall effort was subpar at times.
“We took a lot of games for granted. And we didn’t play hard,” Sullinger said following his team’s 77-55 win over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals Saturday.
But these Buckeyes walloped the Wolverines and did not resemble the team that drew criticism last month.
The Buckeyes played like the dominant crew that earned a slot in many prognosticators' preseason Final Four brackets. They competed like the team that destroyed Duke in November and won six consecutive Big Ten games from Jan. 15 through Feb. 7 (three against nationally ranked opponents).
They started their win over Michigan with a 16-3 run. Then, they got serious and seized a shot at their third consecutive Big Ten tourney title in a Sunday matchup against Michigan State with one of their most impressive outings of the year. They took a 20-point lead five minutes into the second half.
A Wolverines team that beat the Buckeyes by five in Ann Arbor on Feb. 18 didn’t have a chance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Michigan shot 4-for-25 from the 3-point line.
Trey Burke, who scored 30 points in a quarterfinal victory over Minnesota, only produced five points (1-for-11) against the Buckeyes.
The latter’s four-game winning streak has showcased their talent and their evolution from the squad that endured that tough sequence in February.
Sullinger said those losses taught the Buckeyes a lesson and made them take a more focused approach to each game.
“When we had that ‘bad’ month of February, we just took off. We took off from there,” said Sullinger, who scored 24 points against the Wolverines. “It’s just win and advance. Win and advance and keep going.”
The Buckeyes are better because Deshaun Thomas is better. The sophomore has scored 19 or more in five of his team’s past six games. He had 22 against Michigan.
Sullinger scored 17 points combined in two games in late February. He’s been on a mean streak since then. He’s recorded three double-doubles in the past four games and put that late-February anomaly behind him.
The Buckeyes are also playing tough defense and getting quality minutes from reserves (Evan Ravenel scored six points in 16 minutes against the Wolverines).
“We play our best basketball when we don't rely on one person to try to score a lot of points. And we're playing great on the defensive end, and everyone's talking, everyone's into the game,” guard Aaron Craft said. “I think we're starting to understand that's where we're at our best and that's what we need to do for however many games we have left to play, just continuing to go out there, have fun, be positive with each other, and enjoy it.”
Ohio State has thrust itself back into the national championship conversation again. There were stretches in February when the Buckeyes’ postseason potential was questioned. But their display in Indianapolis has offered reminders about how good the Buckeyes can be if they play together.
Matta can only explain part of Ohio State’s late push.
Specific tweaks like switching up Thomas’ pregame routine so that he’s ready to go before tipoff and not using the early part of the game to get warmed up have helped. He also said that Michigan State losing to Indiana in the final full week of the regular season and opening the door for Ohio State to win a share of the Big Ten title may have reinvigorated the Buckeyes.
Regardless of what’s clicked for Ohio State, it’s a promising turn for one of the best teams in the country.
“We have a very good togetherness right now, a very good understanding of how we want to play, what we want do, how we want do it, and I think those are the things that we've been striving for all season,” Matta said. “And it's good to see, over the course of the last couple weeks, just the energy and the enthusiasm this team has had. And I think it carries over to the court for us as well.”
Sunday’s game is a matchup between the Big Ten’s best. Perhaps the winner will earn a No. 1 seed. But even if the matchup doesn’t shift the NCAA tournament bracket, it’s still an opportunity for the Buckeyes to build more mojo and continue to prove that they’re an elite team with the goods to reach New Orleans.
They also want to end the discussion about the Big Ten’s hierarchy after Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan shared the regular-season crown.
“It’s all about who wants to win the Big Ten outright,” he said.
One of the differences between the Buckeyes team that struggled in February and the one that traveled to Indianapolis is that Ohio State has pounced on its two conference tournament opponents when given the opportunity. The Buckeyes beat Purdue by 17 points in the quarterfinals Friday.
That victory and Saturday’s win over Michigan displayed the kind of cutthroat basketball that could lead to a win Sunday and March Madness success for the Buckeyes.
They’ve found their killer instinct at the right time.
“We know [Sunday’s matchup against the Spartans] is going to be a battle," Thomas said, "and we just want to come in and try to hit them first, like we've been doing for these last two games."