It took only three minutes of talking with Jared Sullinger Monday for Thad Matta to come to the assumption the entire Ohio State fan base was holding their breath to hear.
“Yes, he’s going to play,” Matta said.
But when predicting Sullinger would be available for No. 2 Ohio State’s game against Lamar Tuesday night, those thoughts remained just that — an assumption.
Matta wasn’t completely keyed in just how good Sullinger was feeling after missing the majority of the Buckeyes’ win over South Carolina on Saturday with a foot injury. It was the sophomore big man’s first game back in the starting lineup after lingering affects of back spasms held him out for two games.
“I'm just saying he’s playing, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t,” Matta said. “I’m kind of beat up by trying to figure out everything, so the heck with it. We’ll play with who we’ve got when (the game) gets here.”
Matta predicting Sullinger will be available for tonight’s game was nothing if not positive news for the Buckeyes, even if he somehow cannot play.
After missing the majority of Saturday’s game against South Carolina only to return to the bench late with the help of crutches, the injury was envisioned by many to be considerably more serious.
Sullinger left the arena Saturday to go get X-Rays, which came back negative. Instead, Matta identified Sullinger’s ailment as a sprained tendon on the outside of his foot. Sullinger didn’t practice Sunday and the head coach was unsure if he’d be able to go yesterday.
The popular notion is for Matta to hold out Sullinger until he’s fully healthy – or at least until Big Ten play commences in only eight days – but the head coach will continue to play the big man if he is cleared by Ohio State’s medical team.
“It's so easy to look at something from the outside and not know what's going on in the inside," Matta said when asked if there were thoughts to holding Sullinger out for a longer period of time to be extra sure of his health. "Obviously we're going to do what's best for our kids and their well-being, even more than for our team. I think that's our obligation to our kids.
“But a lot of it is what a guy is telling you how he feels, and you go with that. And we want Jared, or whoever, practicing and playing at full strength all the time. There are so many different ways you can look at things, but you've got to look at what's best for your team and what you're trying to build.”
There’s truly some sense on the surface to the thought process of holding Sullinger out for a longer period of time, particularly because these early-season games assuredly aren’t important enough to potentially jeopardize the long-term health of the All-America forward.
But the big picture, which Matta keeps referring to, isn’t painted without getting into the flow of things over a longer period of time. Matta is not necessarily concerned about picking up wins against opponents that are clearly inferior as much as he is for the Buckeyes to continue to grow within themselves.
Ohio State (10-1) has suffered only one loss this season – a road decision at Kansas where Sullinger wasn’t in the lineup – so the Buckeyes currently are in good shape. However, the collective growth of the team is what Matta is concerned with.
That happens with Sullinger in the lineup. So it is a simple decision for Matta - if Sullinger is healthy, he plays.
“We were playing at a very, very high level,” Matta said. “At some point, we’ve got to get this team back flowing, back playing, and all our ducks in a row.”
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