J.J. Sullinger has played three full seasons of Division I college basketball spread over four seasons – one at Arkansas and the last two at Ohio State.
But nowhere in there has Sullinger enjoyed the Holy Grail of college basketball – an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
He and his OSU teammates were denied The Big Dance last winter as the school self-imposed a postseason ban. The Buckeyes ended the year 20-12 and, by all accounts, would have been somewhere in the NCAA’s field of 65 had they been eligible.
Now, the 6-5 Sullinger and three other OSU seniors are down to last one chance to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. They do not intend on missing that chance.
“There is definitely some urgency,” Sullinger said. “I think we’ve done a real good job of displaying that. We worked hard during the off-season. I know this is the best off-season I’ve had. I am really excited to keep working hard as the season approaches.”
Sullinger started all 32 games a year ago, averaging 9.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as OSU’s small forward.
“Our main concern now – and it is still kind of early – is we’re trying to be as good as we can be,” Sullinger said. “We want to be a better team every day.”
Sullinger is a product of Thomas Worthington High School on Columbus’ north side. He grew up as an OSU fan. But when then-coach Jim O’Brien wanted Sullinger to spend a year in a prep school, he opted instead to take an immediate scholarship offer from Arkansas and coach Nolan Richardson, who was acquainted with Sullinger’s father, Satch.
But when Richardson was fired after Sullinger’s freshman season, he almost immediately transferred home to Ohio State. O’Brien was able to find a scholarship slot for Sullinger. Of course, O’Brien was fired in June 2004 and was replaced by Thad Matta.
Matta stabilized the program and also worked hard to ensure its future. He figures to bring in one of the best – if not the best – recruiting class in the country next fall, led by national top overall prospect Greg Oden of Indianapolis. Sullinger – remember, he’s a lifelong OSU fan – is excited about the future of the program.
You have to forgive him, though, for also being a bit keyed up about the present.
“We’re thinking about this year,” Sullinger said. “I think everybody is thinking about this year. Any time you can get some recruits with such high status as those guys, they’re going to be excited. We understand that and we’re excited, too. I’m probably the most excited out of anybody.
“But I’m excited about this year as well. We are trying to work hard and get better. We want to lay down the foundation so when those guys do come, we can set the bar for them. We’re excited about this year as well as next year.”
Sullinger and his three classmates – Terence Dials, Je’Kel Foster and Matt Sylvester – have been selected by Matta as co-captains. Sullinger thinks their experience could give OSU an invaluable edge as it negotiates the tough Big Ten schedule.
“Coach Matta said he has never had a team with four seniors,” Sullinger said. “We have three fifth-year seniors on this team. We’ve got guys with a lot of experience. We’ve got a good group of guys. We’re excited. We have everything we need to be capable of doing well this season.”
Those four seniors are among just 10 scholarship players on this year’s OSU roster. But Sullinger said they are a tight group.
“We’re definitely a family,” he said. “We all work hard together and we relax. You can have 14 or 15 guys, but if two or three of them are on a different page I think that’s worse than having 10 guys or eight guys. We are a close knit group. All of us are on the same page. Our main concern is winning, no matter what it takes or no matter how it’s done. We’re willing to do anything we have to do.”
Sullinger said sophomore post player Matt Terwilliger, in particular, has taken some strides during the off-season.
“We’re trying to get better as a team and get better as individuals and just try to be the best team we can be,” Sullinger said. “Some of these guys don’t even look the same as last year. Matt Terwilliger is one. He looks like a totally different person.
“As a team, we want to be physical. We got outtoughed a couple of times last year. If we play together and do those things, we should have a good chance.”
Matta is glad to have a guy with Sullinger’s experience – he has played 91 games at the Division I level – in the backcourt.
“I’ve really seen James grow as a person in the time I’ve been with him,” Matta said. “He’s been a three-year starter in college and averaged 10 points across the board. You hope as he goes into his senior year he’s carrying kind of hatchet.”
In terms of having a hatchet, Matta said he did not mean he expects to see Sullinger committing fouls. He wants to see him use his tools to his fullest ability.
“I want all of our seniors to say, ‘The sand in the hourglass is slipping through,’ ” Matta said. “They need to say, ‘This is it and we can have a great senior year.’
“We need those guys to come out and lead. There aren’t many players in the country who can say they have seen more than these guys have seen. I hope they are ready and geared up to have a big season.”