Maybe all Ohio State needed to right itself for a championship run was one more day in February.
In beating Northwestern 75-73 on Feb. 29, the Buckeyes fell short of fixing all that has ailed them for much of the Big Ten season, but they showed some signs of the team they were once thought to be.
Their biggest star, Jared Sullinger, not only came up with the game-winning shot but was the overall man of the match with 22 points and 18 rebounds. He was engaged on both ends of the floor, and his teammates were willing and eager to use his considerable gifts to the team’s advantage.
Four players scored in double figures, including 14 big points from point guard Aaron Craft. Not only was the ball finding Sullinger in places he could use it, Craft found himself open for a handful of spot-up threes and he took advantage four times. Craft seems to be looking for his shot a little more lately, something that could make the rest of the offense more dangerous if he is successful.
Not everything was all wine and roses, however. There were those 16 turnovers, a slew of which came down the stretch as an eight-point lead melted away completely. Craft made some questionable decisions, but he was smart enough to get the ball to Sullinger at the end, and he picked his spots well earlier in the game.
One still has to wonder where was William Buford as he scored only six points, but unlike some earlier performances he seemed into it throughout. His shot wasn’t falling, but I think it’s important for him to continue to look for it as a function of the offense. He added six rebounds and four assists with only one turnover, too, so there were some positives.
Northwestern shot 50 percent from the floor and hit 13 of 27 three-pointers, another familiar stat line from a couple of this team’s earlier defeats, but the degree of difficulty was considerable on a number of those looks. The Wildcats made more than a few shots under duress or from well beyond the three-point line, the type that leave you sometimes merely tipping your cap. That’s not the general feeling I’ve come away with in most of the previous outside shooting clinics we’ve seen against the Buckeyes.
This was not the type of performance that crowns a champion, but it could be a building block if the ball continues to move on offense and the defensive communication is strong.
It comes literally not a moment too soon as the regular season finale looms in East Lansing on Sunday, a game that looked like it would probably be just a formality as recently as two days ago but that now carries promise of a piece of the Big Ten championship that seemed like a gimme at the start of the season.
This team still needs to get tougher and smarter, but it showed some signs against a desperate, tournament-quality team on its home floor. There was probably more to take from this win than any of the blowout wins at home the Buckeyes have enjoyed. One wonders about the lapses that let leads slip away – as we saw against Wisconsin on Sunday in a then-crippling loss – but can still come away thinking there were signs they are starting to get what they need to do to be successful, to deliver on the promise that so many saw when they dominated Duke and downed Florida in the pre-conference schedule.
Michigan State could bludgeon all that hope away in 40 minutes or less on Sunday, but the Buckeyes have to be happy to be back in the game.
It is March, after all.