Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
When the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll ranked Ohio State No. 5 in the preseason, the perception was that freshman Jared Sullinger would be to this team what Evan Turner was a year ago.
People saw Sullinger as the type of game-changing player who could put the team on his back and carry it toward a possible No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They predicted, in essence, that Sullinger would be far and away the team’s most important player.
But what’s vaulted OSU from No. 5 to the top spot over the course of the season is the fact that the team has no such player. The most important thing about these Buckeyes is their functionality as a collective unit.
The challenge of the Sweet 16 and onward is that teams will know how to match up against Sullinger — at least better than the cupcakes that were Texas-San Antonio and George Mason. It was proven that you can force him to beat you from the free-throw line in the Big Ten Tournament, in which he shot just 33 percent from the floor and 25-of-38 from the charity stripe.
When opposing defenses key in on Sullinger, as surely will be the case Friday, it will be up to his teammates to become the team’s most important players.
And if there’s anything we’ve seen from this OSU team, it’s that Jon Diebler, David Lighty and William Buford all are capable of having nights where the basket seems as big as Mirror Lake.
We’ve seen Diebler and Lighty set their career highs from beyond the arc recently — Diebler at Penn State with 10, and Lighty against George Mason with 7 — while Buford is the team’s best all-purpose scorer. The 6-foot-5 guard has scored 15 or more in 18 games this season, including 18 points in his past three games.
That’s why the Buckeyes are the en vogue pick to win the national championship after their 98-66 drumming of George Mason on Sunday. They are more of a complete team than anyone imagined them to be in the preseason.
Instead of Sullinger putting the success of the team on his shoulders, he would argue the team’s veterans carry him.
“Basically, we just got to play hard and play smart,” Sullinger said at Wednesday’s press conference, “and let our veterans run the show on Friday. They’ve been here … so we just want to look for them for guidance.”
It’s rare for a freshman of Sullinger’s ability to count on his teammates as he does, as nothing of the sort came from the mouths of Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose during their respective championship game runs.
So, while Turner was the most important player on a team that flamed out at this point last season, this year’s version can prove that being a complete team is the most important thing with a win Friday against Kentucky.