Ohio State's trip south to take on Florida for the first time since 2007 was the first major test for both teams, a game in which we'd find out two important things about Thad Matta's team. One was how they'd navigate the loss of Evan Turner in regards to a primary ball-handler, one that many thought the Buckeyes lacked going into the season. And the second question was how a talented freshman class would mesh with established veterans such as William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty. And if the 93-75 win is any indication of the answers that Ohio State will provide to those questions look out. Lighty and highly touted freshman center Jared Sullinger scored 26 points apiece with the senior's perimeter game being the perfect match for the freshman's post play, and freshman guard Aaron Craft finished with seven points and five assists (three turnovers) in 29 minutes of play.
The great thing about Sullinger, and it's been said many times about the big man, is his desire to be a dominant back to the basket big man in an era flooded with guys aspiring to be face-up fours. Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus, who experienced frontcourt players who look to be well put together, had no answers as Jared made 13 of 17 field goal attempts while also grabbing 10 rebounds. Going back to Craft's play and it's meaning in the grand scheme of things, while it's definitely good that he played well it should also be noted just how many good (and willing) passers are on this team. The Buckeyes finished with 22 assists (and just eight turnovers) on 39 made baskets with Diebler and Burford (who combined to score 30 points) accounting for 14 of those helpers. That's a big reason why they shot 62.9% from the field for the game, including a staggering 70.6% in the second half.
Taking care of the basketball ultimately decided the game as Florida finished with 18 turnovers to just 11 assists. Erving Walker had seven of those turnovers, showing that despite his speed and talent there's still some strides to be made in the decision-making department. And of the 21 points that Ohio State scored off of those Gator turnovers 17 came in the final twenty minutes, and once Diebler knocked down a three with just over 12 minutes remaining to give the visitors a 59-57 lead they didn't trail again. And it isn't as if Florida played poorly either, as four starters scored in double figures and they shot 61.2% from the field. But in order to win in environments such as the O'Connell Center you need virtuoso performances and that's exactly what the Buckeyes put forth.
So what's to be taken from this? Ohio State may have been outrebounded by 8 (28-20, and this will rarely happen this season thanks in large part to Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale) but this is a group that plays very well together. Instead of stressing on the quest for one man to handle the playmaking responsibilities it was a group effort of guys who look to enjoy passing the ball and sharing the wealth. As for Florida it was the turnovers at inopportune times that did them in, but Walker should progress as the season wears on and Kenny Boynton played well at the two. They may want to find more shots for Chandler Parsons (5-6 FG, 13 points to go with seven rebounds) but there really weren't any debilitating negatives in regards to things that Billy Donovan and his staff can't fix. We'll be talking about both of these teams well into March.
Other Key Happenings
1. San Diego State picks up arguably the biggest win of the day.
While Ohio State had the most impressive performance their win may not have been the most important since they were expected to be a Final Four contender since the end of last season. That honor goes to San Diego State, who took the first ranking in school history into the Kennel and left with a hard-fought 79-76 victory over Gonzaga in the final game of the night. Steve Fisher's team is also going with a group effort at the point, with D.J. Gay and Kawhi Leonard sharing the responsibilities depending on the play that's called. But the best player of the floor for either team was Billy White, who abused the Bulldog frontcourt to the tune of 30 points and nine rebounds and was a man possessed in the second half as SDSU gained control then hung on to survive a Gonzaga rally.
Leonard added 18 points, 12 rebounds and three assists (no turnovers) as he and White combined to take 38 of the Aztecs' 65 shots, helping the visitors survive the foul trouble of center Malcolm Thomas. Steven Gray was the leading scorer for both teams, keeping the Bulldogs in the game with a career-high 35 points, but with Elias Harris (1-4 FG, five points) at less than full strength due to a shoulder injury the lifting was a little too heavy for the senior. San Diego State now has road wins over two teams expected to challenge for conference titles (Long Beach State in the Big West and Gonzaga in the WCC), something that may be tough for anyone else to match at this point in the season and White is a big reason why.
"He was absolutely phenomenal and he made some just sheer-will, athletic plays that win for you," said Coach Fisher of White's performance. "When he pursues the ball the way he did tonight, he is going to get a lot of balls. We could not have done it without him. This had to be Billy's best game of his San Diego State career (quote courtesy of San Diego State University Athletics)."
As for Gonzaga the hope has to be that Harris can get back to full health soon given their challenging non-conference schedule. While players such as Demetri Goodson, Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre have the experience to know what head coach Mark Few needs in crunch time, the feeling coming out of Tuesday night's result has to be that outside of Gray and Harris there is a need for another player who can go out and get tough baskets late. Add in the bench being outscored 22-9 (James Rahon scored 12 while Brian Carlwell added 8 for SDSU) and there may be some early concerns for this group.
But it's early, allowing Gonzaga plenty of time to get Harris healthy and work out the kinks. And the date should also be notable for a San Diego State that hasn't been in the position before. If they're looking back on this game in March as their best achievement of the season then something went wrong along the way. The importance of a win like this is best judged when based on how a team built upon it, and the Aztecs have more than enough pieces to make sure they continue that climb.
2. Kansas State survives Jacob Pullen's foul trouble in beating Virginia Tech.
The senior All-American's contributions in the first half: four points, three fouls and two minutes played. For most teams this would be a major concern, as was the case for Frank Martin's Wildcats. But with Pullen relegated to the bench reserves such as Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, Martavious Irving and Will Spradling stepped up in addition to sixth man Jamar Samuels to help mitigate the loss. The Kansas State bench outscored Virginia Tech's reserves 37-10 in helping lead the preseason Big 12 favorites to a 73-57 win in Manhattan.
Foul trouble proved to be more costly for the Hokies, who saw all three frontcourt starters accumulate at least four fouls apiece (Jeff Allen and Terrell Bell both fouled out, Victor Davila finished with four), and their comparative lack of depth provided the crucial blows. Malcolm Delaney led all scorers with 22 points but also finished with nine turnovers, a product of Kansas State's defense along with the need for him to take more chances in creating scoring opportunities.
Virginia Tech went into the locker room down just one (30-29) but the cumulative effect of the interior foul trouble and good Kansas State defense proved to be too much as a Rodney McGruder shot with 12:45 left in the game gave the home team the lead for good. K-State, once again without Curtis Kelly per Coach Martin's decision, outrebounded the Hokies 46-37 (20 offensive rebounds) and outscored them in the paint 34-16. The best thing that may have come out of this game for Kansas State is the physical proof that they have reserves who can be counted on in times of need, something that they'll need as the season wears on.
As for Virginia Tech there has to be some concern over Jeff Allen, who may be approaching the dreaded Matt Howard "I must commit at least two bad fouls per game" territory. With J.T. Thompson and Allan Chaney out for the season Seth Greenberg's team can ill-afford nightly bouts with foul trouble from their senior. Hopefully this is just a minor bump in the road for Virginia Tech."We like having Jeff in the game because we do not have the luxury of having a lot of options," said Coach Greenberg. "Jeff gives us an inside scoring threat and he is a physical rebounder. He is also experienced and it hurt us for him to get into foul trouble (quote courtesy of KStateSports.com)."
3. What should we take out of Butler's loss at Louisville?
First and foremost there's no need to panic in regards to the Bulldogs' 88-73 loss at Louisville, who opened the sparkling KFC Yum! Center in front of a national audience. Butler, who began last season ranked in the Top 10, stubbed their toe a few times in non-conference play and once people allowed them to fall out of sight Brad Stevens' team won 25 straight games before losing to Duke in the national title game. But there is a key difference between this group and that outfit, and that's obviously the absence of players such as Gordon Hayward, Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley. Hayward's name will be the most mentioned because of his versatility and scoring ability, and rightfully so, but don't forget about the experience and steady play provided by Jukes and Veasley either.
Outside of Shelvin Mack in the first half that was sorely lacking as the Cardinals rushed out to an 8-0 lead and didn't look back. And in what's been a familiar theme Matt Howard couldn't stay out of foul trouble, picking up two within the first 3:16 of the game and a third with 2:53 remaining in the first half. The margin of error enjoyed last season in regards to Howard's foul trouble is nowhere near as large given the lack of scoring punch and experience (this could change some as Khyle Marshall gets more comfortable) so he must stay on the floor. To Howard's credit he did score 23 points and grab nine rebounds in just 22 minutes of play, so he did what he could in the time available.
Mack led all scorers with 25 points but no other Butler player scored more than seven (Ronald Nored, who also had six turnovers to just one assist) while five Cardinals finished in double figures (Rakeem Buckles led the way with 17). Defensively Louisville got into Butler and allowed little room to operate, and without a player outside of Mack who could create his own shots the Butler offense struggled to the tune of 7-30 from the field in the first half.
"The defense had prepared their tails off because of the amount of respect that they have for Butler," said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino of his team's effort. "I think they played great defense. That was really great preparation by them, all the switches and all the rotations. They did a fabulous job in the second half and made some adjustments and rotations, but I think that is credit to them (quote courtesy of Louisville Athletics)."
Butler will get better as they're a well-coached team that has talented parts, but Tuesday's outcome shouldn't be enough for people to give up on their chances. Come March the Bulldogs will once again be a player.
Top Three Games
1. San Diego State 79, Gonzaga 76
2. Kent State 62, Robert Morris 59 The Golden Flashes rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to knock off the Colonials at home with Justin Greene leading all scorers with 20 points. Karon Abraham led RMU with 13 points but a cold stretch to start the second half (1-14 FG) opened the door for Kent State.
3. Northeastern 63, Southern Illinois 62 (OT) Chaisson Allen's made free throw on a technical foul with two seconds remaining gave the Huskies a controversial win in Carbondale. Officials said that a Saluki player called for a timeout when they were out of them but despite the call being credited to Mamadou Seck it's still unknown who actually called timeout. Northeastern's Joel Smith led all scorers with 19 points while Gene Teague and Joel Freeman led the Salukis with 13 apiece.
1. Chris Singleton (Florida State) 30 points and 12 rebounds in the Seminoles' 78-53 win over Gardner Webb.
2. Billy White (San Diego State) 30 points and nine rebounds in the Aztecs' 79-76 win over Gonzaga.
3. VCU's second half defense 22 points off of turnovers as they harassed Wake Forest to pull away for a 90-69 win in Winston-Salem. Bradford Burgess led the way with 25 points and eight rebounds while Joey Rodriguez added 18 and one-time Demon Deacon Jamie Skeen 15.