Never losing sight of the big picture, Thad Matta had no qualms about keeping Jared Sullinger out of No. 2 Ohio State’s non-conference bout at No. 13 Kansas on Dec. 10 as the sophomore big man dealt with the linger affects of back spasms.
The Buckeyes’ head coach knew what he was risking – the first loss of the season in one of the most anticipated non-conference games in college basketball.
Despite intense lobbying from Sullinger to find a way to get into the lineup moments before the game, Matta didn’t mind ultimately paying the price for keeping one of the best college basketball players out of his lineup.
“He was trying as hard as he could to convince us (to let him play),” Matta said. “But I think in this profession, I'm looking out for my players' best interest and I'm looking out for our program's best interest.”
In this case, Ohio State’s best interest came in the form of a loss, as the Buckeyes (8-1) fell 78-67 to the Jayhawks (7-2) in Allen Fieldhouse in their first road contest of the young season.
“We probably knew he wasn’t going to play all week and we took that as a challenge,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. “We needed some guys to step up; the guys that don't play and the ones that don't play a lot.”
The Buckeyes won each of their first 24 games a year ago and had a chance to extend its streak to nine-straight this year even without Sullinger, but the game was drastically changed for the Buckeyes without their All-American big man.
Not only did Kansas forward Thomas Robinson have his way with the Buckeyes inside – scoring 21 points to become one of four Kansas scorers in double figures – the Jayhawks repeatedly found open looks from beyond the arc before ultimately converting on 9-of-17 shots from long range.
Though Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams accounted for 11 combined points in the paint for the Buckeyes, Ohio State’s simply allowed too many open looks for the Jayhawks after slow movements in the defensive rotation. Kansas took advantage, particularly with a 65 shooting percentage in the first half, before ultimately converting on 58 percent of its field goal attempts in the game.
“Especially in the first half, we were slow to get to the rotation to get support,” Matta said. “We were holding a little too long, therefore we were slow on the trail because they were trying to get the ball Robinson on the left block.”
Ohio State never lead in the contest after the Jayhawks started the game with a 9-2 run, but the Buckeyes never trailed by more than 12 points despite times where it seemed as if Kansas was poised to break the game open. Hanging in tough after quick Kansas spurts, Ohio State got within four points with under six minutes to play with a one-handed bucket by Deshaun Thomas.
Having lost to Kentucky and Duke already this season, Kansas got the signature win it was looking for after repeatedly responding to Buckeye attempts to cut it close with another run of its own.
“Don’t put an asterisk next to this, we beat Ohio State,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Without Sullinger, they are a top-5 team, and with him, they are a top-2 team. They are that good.
“We caught a break from a winning standpoint, but I thought Ohio State is still a top-10 team without him. We controlled the game even though it wasn't a dominant game. We’re not going to apologize for winning this one in any way, shape or form. It's still a great win for us.”
Ohio State missed out on an opportunity to win its third consecutive big non-conference game of the early season after having already knocked off Duke and Florida in the recent weeks. Had the Buckeyes been able to hold on, they would have beaten three teams this season that accounted for four of the last six national championships.
Thomas – who had a scoring burst in the first half of the Duke game to help OSU secure that win – tried to have a repeat performance against the Jayhawks. A tough reverse layup on a feed from Jordan Sibert brought Ohio State within three points midway through the first half.
That was just the beginning of what turned into another scoring barrage for the sophomore. Thomas knocked down threes on consecutive possessions before senior William Buford used a beautiful entry pass to find freshman Williams for the easy two-handed slam, cutting Kansas’ advantage to 26-21 with 6:25 remaining in the first half.
Despite what looked to be a rocky performance in the first 20 minutes for the Buckeyes, Thomas’ 15 points had the team down only six at halftime. He finished the game with 19 points.
“We competed,” Thomas said. “We’re a competitive team and that's a positive. Without Jared, we came out and competed. We're a great team with him, don't get me wrong, but we came out and competed and that's one thing that coach noticed.”
Lingering memories of Buford’s performance against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament a year ago became prevalent in his slow start, but the senior guard kept Ohio State in the game in the final 20 minutes before finishing with a team-high 21 points.
Scoring 17 points in the second half, Buford made up for a 1-of-8 shooting performance to start the game by accounting for 12-of-15 points for the Buckeyes during a pivotal stretch that kept the team just two buckets away from drawing even for the first time in the contest.
Kansas, however, did what it did all afternoon and responded to Buford’s efforts and regained a double-digit lead with less than three minutes remaining in the game. Again Buford knocked down a three with 1:55 remaining to bring the Buckeyes within six, but Kansas held off Ohio State with free throws from there.
“We're a young squad and we came in here and fought,” Buford said. “I mean, (Kansas is) pretty decent. At the end of the game we got careless with the ball and they got the possession on defense.”
Matta would have certainly preferred to get the win on the road, but recognized the experience as an opportunity for his youthful team to grow. And, of course, Matta can rest easier knowing he didn’t push Sullinger to come back before he was ready.
Youthful players got valuable minutes on the road in one of the nation’s most hostile environments and his team got a chance to try and play one of the best team’s in college basketball shorthanded.
Matta always vows to be focused on the big picture. He’s likely pleased by what his Buckeyes gained, even in a loss.
“As I told our guys, we lost to a great, great basketball team in a phenomenal environment,” he said. “My hat goes off to the people in this building. The Kansas fans were tremendous today.”
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