Ohio State’s freshmen unfazed

Josh Katzenstein

INDIANAPOLIS âÄì Keep pulling the trigger.
ThatâÄôs the message Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger said his father gives him to handle the pressure.
Sullinger and the Buckeyes have only lost two games this season and he highlights a cast of freshmen that have contributed some of their best efforts in this seasonâÄôs toughest games.
Northwestern took the top-ranked Buckeyes (30-2, 16-2 Big Ten) to overtime in the second round of the Big Ten tournament on Friday. Sullinger had a shot to win the game in regulation with the score tied at 52, but the ball slipped out of his hand, he said, and missed the hoop.
That was the last shot he missed.
In the extra period the Sulinger hit 10 of 10 free throws to finish with 20 points, carrying the Buckeyes to a 67-61 overtime win that helps their case for the top overall seed in this yearâÄôs NCAA tournament.
âÄúWith him going to the rack and getting fouled, weâÄôre definitely confident,âÄù senior Dallas Lauderdale said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to keep feeding him the ball.âÄù
Sullinger won a Division I state basketball title his junior year at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio. In the championship game, he said he hit two free throws at the end of the game to beat Princeton High School and current teammate Jordan Sibert.
Earlier this season, his 3-point play with 13.2 seconds remaining lifted Ohio State over Penn State on Jan. 15. Two weeks later he hit the second of two free throws to beat Northwestern, 58-57.
âÄúIâÄôve been having pressure all my life, so my pipes ainâÄôt busting no time soon,âÄù said Sullinger, whose 18 rebounds were one shy of a tournament record. âÄúI love pressure.âÄù
So do the other Buckeyes freshmen.
Aaron Craft scored a career-high 19 points in that Penn State game. He also had an 11-point, six-assist, six-rebound game against then-12th-ranked Purdue on Jan. 25 in Columbus. Freshman Deshaun Thomas added 13 points and six rebounds in the win over the Boilermakers.
In FridayâÄôs win over Northwestern, Craft had 17 points and seven boards and gave the Buckeyes the spark they needed off the bench in a sloppy game for Ohio State âÄî they shot 32.2 percent from the field.
âÄúI think theyâÄôre just playing with a great amount of confidence right now, and theyâÄôre great players,âÄù senior John Diebler said. âÄúAll of our freshmen are great players.âÄù
Humble, too.
âÄúIâÄôve definitely benefited from having the coaching staff we have and the seniors we have,âÄù Craft said. âÄúI think thatâÄôs definitely a thing people take for granted is the leaders you have on your team and just on and off the court trying to get you ready.âÄù
After another battle-tested win, the Buckeyes are ready to make a deep run in the Big Dance with the freshmen as key contributors. In years past, people put teams like Ohio State that rely heavily on young players at a disadvantage.
Thomas said Ohio State works too hard. Lauderdale said the Buckeyes just want to go about their business.
âÄúPeople are going to say what theyâÄôre going to say, but we know what were capable of doing,âÄù Lauderdale said. âÄúWe know the goals that we have set that we want to achieve.âÄù
Since the beginning of the season those goals started and ended with Sullinger, a first-team All-Big Ten selection and the conferenceâÄôs freshman of the year. The 6-foot-8, 280-pound forward averaged 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in what will likely be his only season with Ohio State. HeâÄôs projected to be one of the first five players selected in the 2011 NBA draft.
âÄúIt doesnâÄôt bother me because Jared knows what he wants to do,âÄù Thomas said. âÄúJared knows for himself if he wants to get better or if he wants to succeed at this level right now.âÄù
And he does. Sullinger said he was demanding the ball at the end of FridayâÄôs game. ThatâÄôs who he is. HeâÄôs looked for pressure situations, and âÄî to this point in his college career âÄî heâÄôs succeeded.
âÄúYouâÄôre just playing basketball. YouâÄôre out there having fun and you have to play hard,âÄù he said. âÄúNow its postseason; sophomore time.
âÄúYouâÄôve got to keep pulling the trigger and keep shooting their target before they shoot yours.âÄù