Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series looking at the player, coach and team facing the most pressure in the NCAA tournament.
INDIANAPOLIS – The big man saunters across the court and gives the radio play-by-play guy a wink and a nod.
The point guard wraps an arm around the veteran official and chats him up like a long-lost friend.
Kareem and Magic? Shaq and Kobe?
Ohio State's precocious freshmen couldn't have looked any less their age or any more at ease en route to leading the Buckeyes to last week's Big Ten tournament title.
The stakes get much higher this week as the nation's No.1 team begins its chase for an NCAA championship with a game against the Texas-San Antonio–Alabama State winner on Friday in Cleveland.
No team faces more pressure than OSU (32-2), the top overall seed in the 68-team field. Anything short of a crown will be considered a disappointment. The Buckeyes have earned their status behind the play of veterans such as David Lighty, William Buford, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. They are led by tournament-tested Thad Matta, one of the premier coaches in the nation, who boasts the country's highest winning percentage since 2001.
Playing for the first time on the game's biggest stage will be Sullinger and Craft. How they react could decide if this team can deliver on its promise. They gave a glimpse of what they are capable of in their first foray into collegiate postseason play.
"To come in for their first Big Ten tournament and play at the level they played at was impressive," Matta said. "(After 34 games) they're pretty accustomed to just about anything.
"Dating back to the first road game we played at Florida, it has been just incredible environments. And these guys have had great poise and great composure. You know, both guys won a ton of games throughout their high school career as well."
A year ago, Sullinger and Craft were competing to be Ohio's Mr. Basketball. Now, should the seeds hold, they will try to knock off George Mason, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas in consecutive games.
Ohio State has so many weapons. Watch as Buford, a junior guard, sheds defenders and converts jumper after jumper. Witness as Diebler, a senior sharpshooter, spots up for 3-pointers and flicks the nets. Lighty, an All-Big Ten defender and senior swingman, has more than his share of offensive attributes. He can shoot, slash and beat opponents off the dribble. Lauderdale, the senior center, can be a shot-blocking force.
"It's hard to double team us," Sullinger said. "We share the ball so well and are so unselfish, anyone can be our leading scorer on any given night."
Sullinger provides an asset in short supply in the college game: a dominant post player capable of creating havoc on both ends of the floor.
"He's a monster," Buford said. "I'm so proud of him. He's not playing like a freshman. He's playing like a veteran, and he's going to keep it up."
With the Buckeyes struggling to put away Northwestern in its first-round league tournament game, Sullinger took over. He backed down the Wildcats' undersized frontcourt players and bulled his way to the basket, drawing fouls and finishing from the free-throw line. Twenty points, 18 rebounds. So long Northwestern, 67-61.
Craft was key as OSU shed Michigan 68-61 in a second-round game. His clutch 3-pointer helped the Buckeyes build an insurmountable 18-point lead late in the second half. Time after time, he penetrated to the hoop and either found an open teammate or wound up at the line. He averaged 11.6 points and 2.6 assists in the run to the tourney trophy.
Sullinger struggled with his shooting in Indy, hitting at just a 33 percent clip. He was continually hacked, bumped and bruised, but never lost his composure. But he set a Big Ten tournament record with 38 free-throw attempts over the three games as he captured most outstanding player honors. The 6-foot-9, 280-pounder, who has drawn comparisons to former Duke great Elton Brand, averaged 16.3 points and 14 rebounds. In the finale, Sullinger collected 15 points and 11 rebounds, vanquishing Penn State 71-60. He has 17 double-doubles on the season.
The biggest concern most have about Matta's team isn't the freshmen, it's the thin playing rotation. OSU goes only seven players deep. Lighty, Buford, Diebler, Sullinger and Craft all average 30 or more minutes. Foul trouble or an injury could thrust the favorites into a world of hurt.
The semifinal win against Michigan may have allayed some of those short-bench fears. With Craft and Lighty having foul problems, two more freshmen – Deshaun Thomas and Jordan Sibert – came in and played substantial minutes. Thomas finished with nine points and four rebounds. Sibert had a key steal and a dunk.
"Everybody thinks we're a little short," Sullinger said. "Jordan Sibert comes off the bench and gives you a huge steal. Deshaun is a tank. It's hard to stop him. He can score in so many ways. He can get the rebound. He can shoot the three. He can finish through contact. Deshaun is a good basketball player."
Even in the era of one-and-done players, conventional wisdom says that it takes a deep, veteran team, and point guard, to win the national title. Freshmen-fueled Kentucky had a record five players (four freshmen) selected in the first round of last year's NBA draft, including overall No. 1 John Wall. But the top-ranked Wildcats fell well short of an NCAA championship, losing to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Their naiveté and nerves showed when they clanked their first 20 3-pointers against the Mountaineers.
Ohio State's makeup is different. The youthful Sullinger and Craft can count on Lighty, Buford, Diebler and Lauderdale to lend stability. That mix of wizened experience and budding talent could be the formula to cut down the nets April 4 in Houston.
"We have a lot of very good basketball players and it's hard to focus on somebody when they're driving to the basket because we have people who can knock shots down from outside," said Diebler, the Big Ten's all-time leader in 3-pointers. "It's a great problem to have. Obviously it makes us difficult to prepare for. We are so confident in our system. We trust what the coaches have us doing offensively and defensively. We feel like we can get any shot we want.
"We've got a very mature bunch with the four guys who played a lot of minutes last year and the young guys now, who aren't young anymore. It makes for a good combination."
Sullinger, likely to finish third in player of the year voting behind BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Duke's Nolan Smith, is brimming with confidence. He might still be a freshman but he doesn't feel like one.
"Around this time of year, you can't consider yourself a freshman," Sullinger said. "You've played so many games, you're basically a sophomore. We've just got to keep playing hard and keep doing what we've been doing."
Boyish countenance aside, Craft is a fierce competitor. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder is smart enough to have reverence for the collective savvy of the upperclassmen, guys who have played under March pressure before.
"You can't put a price on the type of experience they have and the ability they have to lead us," Craft said. "That's something that not many teams have.
"It's amazing what you can learn on and off the court. Trying to get your rest and just trying to stay loose for games. It's awesome and we're fortunate to have guys like that who are willing to accept us in and share their knowledge."
Can this pair of confident kids help carry Matta, who made it to the national championship game in 2007, over the top? If their performance in the Big Ten tournament is any indication, they can handle the heat.
The temperature turns up this week. Over the history of the NCAA tournament, there have been plenty of young players who wilted under the spotlight. John Wall and Co. last year. Chris Webber calling that non-existent timeout back in the title game against North Carolina in 1993.
Sullinger and Craft, lauded for their basketball IQ, appear ready. Poised and polished, seemingly impervious to pressure, they have already brought home a Big Ten banner.
To capture the national championship they'll have to be even better, even more collected.
They'll have to be as cool as Kareem and Kobe.
- Jared Sullinger
- David Lighty
- Jon Diebler