A strong start to the season, including a comfortable win over Duke, had the Buckeyes looking every bit like one of the nation’s elite. Even a loss at Kansas failed to derail the optimism; with Sullinger out of that contest, it was easy to write off the defeat. But then Ohio State began Big Ten play. After the team blew out Northwestern, they headed to Bloomington. There, Indiana sent a message:
The conference was not yet OSU’s for the taking.
Suffering the 74-70 upset made it clear that Buckeyes were in for a fight, a reality that was reinforced ten days later in Champaign. Whereas the Hooisers used a balanced attack– all five starters scored in double-digits– the Illini rode an incredible individual performance by Brandon Paul, whose 43 points marked one of the best games in school history.
Paul shot a ridiculous 80 percent from 3-point range, buried eight long balls while going 11 of 15 from the floor. He added 13 of 15 free throw attempts, leading Illinois to an unexpected victory. With so few shots, his day was historically efficient; no player has scored 43 or more on 15 attempts in nearly two decades.
There are times in college basketball when a team simply runs into a buzzsaw.
The question that lingered after the 79-74 loss was how the Buckeyes would respond. With a rematch against Indiana looming, the team couldn’t afford to dwell on defeat. It had to regain its focus quickly and prepare to defend Value City Arena.
As it turns out, doing so would be relatively easy thanks to an unlikely source of points.
Perhaps he simply had one great afternoon. Perhaps he learned something from watching Paul, or perhaps he’s ready to emerge as a new offensive threat. Whatever the cause, the effect of sophomore Lenzelle Smith, Jr.’s 28-point outburst was a much needed 80-63 dismantling of the same Hoosiers that took Ohio State down at the end of 2011.
Smith’s previous career high had been 12 points back in Bloomington. It was the only time he had finished in double-digits. Something about playing Indiana must agree with him, because Smith’s encore was spectacular.
10 of 12 shooting. 4 of 5 from long range. 4 of 6 from the line. And for good measure, 7 boards, the game’s second-highest total behind Jared Sullinger’s 9.
Until Sunday, Smith had been an offensive afterthought. An outlet that the Buckeyes used when all other options were exhuasted. Indiana recognized that fact, and despite the fact that his 12 points back on December 31st helped keep OSU in the game, the Hooisers gave him plenty of freedom in the rematch.
Keying on the Buckeyes primary weapons, they routinely left Smith with scoring opportunties. They were chances he didn’t miss. Said Indiana coach Tom Crean afterward, “Lenzelle is averaging four shots a game. Look it up. He really played well. He played well at our place, but they’ve got a lot of good players. That’s why they’re as good as they are.”
Crean’s assessment is a good one. It’s difficult to beat a top 10 team in its own stadium under any circumstances. But when a guy like Smith, who is usually limited to being a role player, is able to erupt, that task becomes almost impossible.
Credit Coach Matta for using the Hoosiers’ game plan against them. Credit the studs like Sullinger and Aaron Craft for drawing the bulk of the defensive attention. But most of all, credit Smith for rising up and knocking down shots.
After trailing 2-0, William Buford sank OSU’s first bucket of the game, and Smith then hit his first attempt of the day to put the Bucks in the lead. They would never give it up. The 4-2 edge ballooned to 20-7, then 27-12, then 35-14 at the half. Ohio State was smothering, limiting the Hoosiers to 6 of 22 shooting before the break.
Halftime introduced new football coach Urban Meyer to the crowd at the Schott. As if the crowd needed another cause for celebration. The second half was mostly cruise control as the lead hovered between 15 and 20 points.
Sullinger, Buford, and Deshaun Thomas augmented Smith’s night with 16, 12, and 112 points, respectively. Craft added 8 and had 7 assists. With Smith playing so well, Matta didn’t have much need for his bench, and Ohio State’s reserves were limited.
Cody Zellar led the Hoosiers with 16. Christian Watford added 13 and Jordan Hulls 11. No Hoosier had more than 6 rebounds. All things considered, Indiana did well to finish with a shooting percentage of 43.6%.
The Bucks shot 54.4%.
Ohio State now gets a couple of tune-ups against Nebraska and Penn State before closing out January by hosting the #15 Wolverines. Sunday’s victory came at a critical time; with the two road losses, the Buckeyes were starting to look vulnerable and, perhaps, overrated. But the blowout reaffirmed that OSU is still in good position to capture the conference.
In terms of making that happen, a few more games like this from Lenzelle Smith, Jr. sure wouldn’t hurt.