Two late defensive mistakes by Jared Sullinger hurt Ohio State
I have harped on the poor defense by Jared Sullinger several times and it showed again down the stretch last night, as he made two mistakes that led to point by Brandon Paul to either give Illinois the lead or help them extend it late in the game. While one of the mistakes was not entirely his fault, the second one definitely was and it hurt Ohio State in their ability to close out a win.
The first play to illustrate is a Brandon Paul three point shot that came with 2:02 left and give Illinois the lead for good. Brandon Paul receives a backscreen at the elbow then runs baseline for a second screen from Meyers Leonard. Sam Thompson got caught in the backscreen, so he is several steps behind as Paul runs baseline.
Sullinger is defending Leonard and needs to do something on this baseline screen to help Thompson, especially with Paul having such a hot shooting night. Sullinger has to be wary of stepping too far out because Leonard will have a free path to the rim if he slips the screen and Thompson keeps fighting to get to Paul.
This play is not 100% on Sullinger but it shows his poor defensive tendencies. He has poor positioning to start, which forces Thompson to follow Paul around the screen of Leonard. Some slight shuffling on the screen allows Leonard to fully cut off Thompson from getting to Paul, giving him the space needed to shoot. Sullinger should be playing a step or two off Leonard, which would have allowed Thompson a better lane to get past the screen.
Also, Sullinger does a poor job of communicating the screen. Thompson sees it coming the whole way but it shows that Sullinger is not aware of everything that is going on around him. If he would have seen the screen coming, he could have taken a step away from Leonard, creating a lane for Thompson to by the screen and defend the shot. Again, this is not all on Sullinger but he didn’t do enough to help his teammate defend the screen.
This second play, where Sullinger fouled Paul on a drive to the rim, is mainly Sullinger’s fault. Sullinger starts by defending Leonard in the post and does an adequate job of denying him the ball. However, after the ball gets passed to Paul curling off a screen, he does a poor job of stepping off Leonard and providing help defense on Paul.
Look at where Sullinger several moments after Paul has received the ball and is in the process of making his move to the rim. Sullinger is still glued to Leonard as he has not reacted to the current action. This causes him to be late as he slides over to defend Paul, fouling him in the process.
This illustrates the way Sullinger reacts too slowly to action around him. While his strength allows him to be an average defender when guarding an offensive player in the post, he does not demonstrate the awareness or mobility to be a useful help defender. In this play, he had plenty of time to see Paul curling and rotate into the paint to do a better job of defending without fouling. Instead, he took too long to rotate and fouled Paul on the shot attempt.
These plays demonstrate much of what is wrong with Sullinger’s defense. He is poor on help defense, as he stays in the chest of his man, which causes him to be late on rotations or blocks his teammate from getting past screens. Ohio State still has the best defense (in terms of adjusted defense efficiency) but Sullinger hurts the defense more than he helps it.