Courtesy of Ned Mulka / Daily Illini
Coach Thad Matta understands the complications of having such a young basketball team going through the rigors of the Big Ten season for the first time. But he says age is no excuse for poor play at this level.
“They’ll tell you, I don’t hide behind the fact that freshmen do hit a wall,” Matta said Tuesday. “Just not here. That, to me, is a sign of weakness, a sign of softness. Those guys have to continue to bring it every day.”
Freshmen standouts Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft have played integral roles for the latest No. 1 team in the country, just more than halfway through their first season at Ohio State.
Sullinger, the power forward who has started all 20 games and averaged a double-double with 17.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, credits his veteran teammates with preventing the team’s rookies from succumbing to the difficulties of Division I basketball.
“It’s kind of hard to hit that wall when you have people like Jon Diebler, David Lighty, William Buford and Dallas Lauderdale always in your ear,” said the three-time Big Ten Player of the Week. “Their leadership and communication is always really big … because from day one they’ve been in our ear talking about how they need both (me and Craft) to play good basketball.”
Matta and his veteran players have instilled maturity in the team’s freshmen during their first year as collegiate athletes.
“We can’t be coming in as a freshman; we have to play like a sophomore or junior,” Sullinger said. “It really hits us. … We’re listening to them and focusing on what we have to do.”
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, Sullinger won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award eight times. Craft and Deshaun Thomas have won the award once.
Seven games into the Big Ten schedule, OSU has faced what it expected: a slew of more talented, hungry and difficult opponents than what it saw early against non-conference foes.
After cruising through their non-conference slate and winning their games by an average of 28.8 points, the Buckeyes have won their first seven conference games by 6.4 points per game.
“I think a lot of it is keeping the foot on the pedal and constantly talking to them about getting better,” Matta said.
Sullinger said his teammates have “no compassion at all” for the youngsters — an attitude conducive to mental toughness.
“There (are) definitely times when they know they have to get after us. That’s just needed, and it’s understood as freshmen that they’re not doing it to pick on us; they’re not doing it to make fun of us or point us out,” Craft said. “But it’s definitely needed to get us on the right track. We couldn’t have stepped into a better group of leaders for us and all the freshmen on the team.”
Although Craft’s 6.3 points and 4.9 assists per game don’t jump off the stat sheet, his strengths lie on the defensive end and controlling the tempo of the game as point guard. Craft recorded a career-high 19 points, along with seven assists, Jan. 15 in the team’s 69-66 win against Penn State.
Being the nation’s top team comes with its own set of challenges, especially for a team that features as many freshmen as OSU does. Sullinger averages 30.5 minutes per game, Craft 27.9 and Thomas 16.0.
But being a part of a top team is nothing new to Sullinger, who, alongside Craft, starred on one of the nation’s top AAU teams during his high school years.
“We won three national championships in a row. After our first … we realized we had a target on our chest,” Sullinger said. “As freshmen, me and Craft are kind of used to it.”
Although the team is doing everything it can to keep its younger players playing their best, Matta said there is no contingency plan for a drop in play from any of the team’s star freshmen.
“You really can’t. You got to have a trust, got to have a belief in your players that they want to be good, want to be great and want to win,” Matta said. “If you see it, we just make practice harder.”