It’s been a year since Jared Sullinger sat in the loser’s locker room. Tasting the brutal finality of defeat in college basketball’s postseason for the first time, Sullinger didn’t bother to get out of his uniform before he told reporters he was definitely going to wear it for another year.
Most figured the pain of being prematurely knocked out of the NCAA Tournament was too much for him to handle. Sullinger had to hold back tears the night the top-seeded Buckeyes fell to No. 4 Kentucky in New Jersey's Prudential Center, ending a season most thought would most certainly end in a trip to the Final Four.
The riches of NBA wasn’t important enough to him that night – he wanted another crack at it. It was all about that next chance to experience what last year’s version of Ohio State was all but destined to do.
“It feels tremendous to be in a situation like this,” Sullinger said a year after the final game of his freshman season. This time when he spoke the Buckeyes, now a No. 2 seed, were victorious. Ohio State (30-7) had just beaten No. 6 Cincinnati 81-66 to advance to the Elite Eight, one step closer to achieving what he thought he already should have.
We’ve learned a lot about Sullinger between now and then. Turning down a chance at what would have been a sure-fire NBA lottery pick to return for his sophomore season at Ohio State was more than just avenging the loss in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“The decision was to come back to make another run,” Sullinger acknowledged after Ohio State’s victory over the Bearcats. “But also, the basketball team last year really had a touch of my heart. There’s some guys where they’re pretty much family. I mean, I couldn’t let my family down like that.”
Sullinger doesn’t seem prepared to allow it to happen again. After losing in the Sweet 16 the last two years, the sophomore All-America big man now has the Buckeyes making their first trip to a regional final since 2007.
Against the Bearcats, Sullinger scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. In the Buckeyes’ previous game – a 73-66 win over Gonzaga – the sophomore scored two crucial buckets in the final minute to help Ohio State move escape with the win despite playing a limited first half because of foul trouble.
“Jared is a winner,” assistant coach Jeff Boals told BSB. “He always rises to the challenge. He has been stepping up and he doesn’t want us to lose.”
Two months ago, Ohio State fit the perfect profile for an early-tournament burnout and a lot of that had to do with the state of Sullinger. The Buckeyes were losing games and their best player admitted publicly to being distracted by outside influences.
Even his game didn’t always look right. Explosiveness seemed to lack at times, something that began speculation of a potential lingering injury or a lack of interest due to frustrations related or unrelated to basketball.
“One thing you have to realize is that he’s 19 years old and even though he’s a great player, he’s 19,” OSU assistant Dave Dickerson told BSB. “He’s going to go through stretches. Nobody in college basketball draws more attention than Jared Sullinger. He never gets frustrated and he just stays the course.
“At times it looks like he isn’t play well, but in actuality he’s doing the best thing for our team. There are times where he’s tired and certain defenses wear him down, but he’s never wavered when we needed him. That’s why we lean on him.”
There was no need to question Sullinger’s explosiveness against the Bearcats. There was no talk of lingering injuries nor was there signs of any frustration. It was Sullinger at his best, out-rebounding other players and cleaning up the glass on both ends of the floor. And the timing couldn't have been better for the Buckeyes.
Dickerson acknowledges that Sullinger has had a “rocky season with injury,” especially early in the year when a lower back issue and foot ailment kept him out of a handful of games. Now, he seems to be unaffected by anything that may have slowed him down.
“He’s playing his best basketball now,” Dickerson said, “and we’re playing our best basketball because of it. We’re going to keep going to him down the stretch. No matter what, he’s always going to be a focal point.”
Years go by quickly. With one bad game, though, Sullinger knows opportunities can be lost even quicker. The Buckeyes are one win away from the Final Four, but Sullinger has more moments to seize before that is accomplished.
“It feels good to be in the Elite Eight, but we still have one more game on our schedule (here in Boston),” Sullinger said. “We have to focus on that. Hopefully the train doesn’t stop here."
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