In the Ohio State basketball team’s first major test of the season against No. 7 Florida on Tuesday, coach Thad Matta relied on experience to lead the way for the Buckeyes.
His approach worked.
The three returning players with the most experience — sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, senior guard William Buford and sophomore guard Aaron Craft — all played key roles as the No. 3 Buckeyes defeated the Gators, 81-74.
Matta said the players’ experience is invaluable.
“Honestly, I don’t think that I can put a price tag on it,” Matta said. “When you got guys that have been in that type of situation, that type of environment, it’s different… We’ve got a long, long way to go, but having those guys as a pillar is huge for us.”
Matta, who played 12 players in OSU’s opening win against Wright State, stuck with an eight-man rotation for most of the game, with Craft, Sullinger and Buford scarcely coming off the court.
Buford missed his first two shots of the night, but rebounded quickly, connecting on a barrage of tough jumpers and pull-ups. He led all scorers by game’s end with 21 points. Buford also added six rebounds.
“I thought William was good,” Matta said. “He showed patience, hit some key shots for us…He’s the one guy that’s been through these wars numerous times and we need him to play like that.”
Craft was a headache for the Gator offense all night defensively and routinely broke the Florida press, leading to a number of easy, OSU buckets. Craft had 13 points, seven assists and three steals.
Florida coach Billy Donovan lauded Craft’s effort and said his play was the difference in the game.
“I thought, clearly, he dominated the game from start to finish,” Donovan said. “He was the whole key to me in the game… He’s as good as any guard out there.”
Craft said his physical play against the Florida guards forced them out of their comfort zone and played a big role in the OSU victory.
“I tried to stay as physical with them as possible,” Craft said. “We knew they were going to come in and try to shoot as many 3-pointers as possible. We tried not to let them get comfortable early…and make them shoot inside the 3-point line.”
But whenever Florida started making a run, the Buckeyes would look to their preseason All-American, Sullinger.
The forward dominated inside, finishing with 16 points and six rebounds.
“I thought Jared was playing really, really hard,” Matta said. “It was extremely physical down there.”
Despite the victory, the three veterans aren’t yet satisfied with the team’s level of play.
“We’re only going to get better,” Sullinger said. “It’s kind of a stepping stone for us. We just got to come into practice and work even harder.”
The Buckeyes next take the court at the Schottenstein Center against Jackson State at 9 p.m. Friday