Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ohio State Taking High Expectations Head On

Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger has been heckled, taunted, and beat up this season. College basketball’s newest star has felt hostility in almost every gym he’s played in outside of Columbus and has been physically tested in the paint against every opponent. In West Lafayette, Purdue’s student section even sang Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” when he was at the free throw line to mock a YouTube video of Sullinger singing the hit song.

But through it all, the 18-year-old All-Big Ten selection and the rest of the Buckeyes are asking for more.

“You just got to have heart at this point in time,” he said. “This team has a chip on our shoulder. We feel like everybody’s been doubting us and everybody’s been pretty much on our back.”

Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament as the number one overall seed. They locked up the top spot winning their second straight Big Ten Tournament title. The Buckeyes beat Penn State 71-60, Sunday, at Conseco Fieldhouse. It was their seventh win in a row.

“Obviously I am happy that we have the number one overall seed, but it is what it is,” said center Dallas Lauderdale. “Now we need to go to Cleveland and play Ohio State basketball.”

The hostility against the Buckeyes will likely be toned down as they play their first and potentially second round games just two-and-a-half hours from their Columbus campus. But, no team will play with a bigger target throughout the tournament than Ohio State.

“This is like the playoffs. It’s the biggest tournament of the year, so we have to have a different mindset when we come in to this than what we had in the regular season and [Big Ten] tournament and just go hard,” said Sullinger. “It’s a big stage. It’s just a whole different mindset that you have to have. You have to be tougher.”

Ohio State has fought its way to a mark of 32-2. It’s the most wins they’ve had entering the NCAA tournament and second most in school history. The only team with more was the 2007 squad that lost in the National Championship game.

Senior David Lighty was a member of that team that lost to Florida. He said it was hard to understand the magnitude of a Final Four run so early in his career, but wants to build on that experience to get back there.

“I didn’t really know the hype of the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Going through tournaments and being in it now, I’m kind of settled in with what the NCAA’s are about.”

But, if the Buckeyes make the trip to Houston, they are going to have to rely on guys who haven’t been on this stage before. Ohio State’s primary eight man rotation includes four freshmen. Point guard Aaron Craft is one of them. He said the team’s youth doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for the challenge.

“We’ve done a pretty great job of taking any kind of adversity that’s been thrown at us throughout the season,” he said. “Once you get on the court all it does is break down into a basketball game and that’s all it is.”

So far, no team has played more consistent basketball than the Buckeyes. Their only two losses came on the road at Wisconsin and Purdue, both who are ranked in the top-15.

With that kind of resume, it comes as no surprise that Ohio State comes into March Madness as the favorites. And they are staring the high expectations right in the face.

“We honestly don’t feel any pressure,” said Jon Diebler. “We are just really enjoying this time and enjoying this ride we are having right now.”
Even Sullinger, who is public enemy number one for opposing defenses and fan bases, can’t wait for more of the ride, no matter how bumpy it may get.

“This whole season we had a target on our backs,” he said. “We are going to keep taking those bullets and take it in the chest like a man.”

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