Thad Matta did not let a single question leave a reporter’s lips before addressing the No. 1 subject surrounding his Ohio State men’s basketball team: the health and playing status of sophomore standout Jared Sullinger.
“I don’t know on Jared’s status,” Matta said as he took a seat behind a microphone. “I don’t have the answer now.”
Don’t worry. Matta later elaborated. The Buckeyes have played two games without their star center, and that streak could extend to three Wednesday night when No. 2 Ohio State takes on South Carolina-Upstate. Matta said he expected Sullinger to “do more” when it comes to physical activity on Tuesday and would see how the sophomore feels on Wednesday morning.
Matta stressed that he wanted to move Sullinger along “slowly, but surely.” Whether that means he’ll play against the Spartans on Wednesday or possibly Saturday afternoon at South Carolina remains to be seen. He can run, jump and shoot now, according to Matta, but will be brought along slowly.
“I’d like for him to play tomorrow night if he would feel up to it,” Matta said, “but I honestly have no idea (if he’ll play.) Once he gets through a couple of (practices) we’ll probably have a better gauge at that point.”
Sullinger has been sidelined since the Nov. 29 victory against Duke because of the lingering effects of back spasms. The Buckeyes defeated Texas-Pan American without the big man’s services Dec. 3 but fell seven days later without him at No. 13 Kansas – Ohio State’s first loss of the 2011-12 season.
Matta rang a familiar tune Tuesday afternoon when it came to Sullinger. The long term is far more important than the short term. Sullinger begged Matta to allow him to play against the Jayhawks, but Matta was unswayed.
“You have to factor in a lot of different things,” Matta said. “First and foremost, Jared is still young. He’s a very competitive individual. Like I’ve said, I think winning the war is more important than winning the battle.
“That’s my mindset as we continue to move forward.”
Sullinger’s classmate, fellow sophomore Aaron Craft, said he expects the center back soon.
“It’s definitely day-to-day,” Craft said. “Every day he comes in he looks more excited. He looks like he’s moving around a lot better.”
Ohio State’s offense has struggled without Sullinger. The Buckeyes shot under 40 percent from the field against UTPA (39.7 percent) and Kansas (38.7 percent) and that will have to improve if Sullinger is not back soon.
“There’s a lot of things that I think we can do better, starting with passing,” Matta said. “Some of the passes we threw in to our shooters were atrocious on Saturday. … Like I told the guys, I’m not buying the fact that because Jared’s not in there that we can’t make shots.”
“Guys have made some plays. We just have to get it more on a consistent basis,” Matta added.
- Don’t expect to see LaQuinton Ross make a big impact right away. The freshman forward, who recently joined the team after academic issues had kept him sidelined, is still making the adjustment to life as a Buckeye. Matta said Ross is naturally a little behind his teammates but is working hard.
“Throughout the course of practice yesterday, it was revealing how much the other guys know (compared to Ross),” Matta said. “Not that he doesn’t know, but the terminology and just the movements and all of the things that we’ve drilled … unfortunately he just doesn’t have the foundation. It was really hard to even hard to even tell he was out there from that standpoint.
“He tried hard, and the good thing for us is Q does have a high basketball IQ. He’s asking a lot of questions, but he knows we have something going on here and he has to find his niche and his way to the court.”
- Ohio State won its first 24 games last season before losing Feb. 12 at Wisconsin. Matta said there was a benefit to seeing this year’s team not take on the pressure of going deep into the season with a blemish. He said he never wants to lose, but it could be a good thing in helping to get his message across to his team.
“I hate losing, so I would much rather have the problem of the pressure (of being undefeated),” Matta said. “But by the same token, I think that we have an opportunity to do something that we didn’t have the opportunity to do for 24 games last year, and that’s to get things corrected. I think that’s why part of be is very excited to see how we play tomorrow night in this game.”
- Finally, expect Ohio State to be ready for the South Carolina-Upstate. Especially coming off the loss at Kansas in which Craft said OSU was too sloppy.
“We’re ready to play. Going back and watching the tape, we played hard and played with some good toughness being our first road game, but we made mistakes that we don’t normally make. If Jared would have played and we made the same mistakes, they still would have won the game because we didn’t play Ohio State basketball. You have to give Kansas a lot of credit for how well they played, their atmosphere and how their players played, but at the same time I don’t think we went in with the right mindset.”