COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What happens when Football Town, USA, suddenly becomes Jared Sullinger's town?
Thad Matta hopes we're all about to find out.
Believe it or not, there are still places in and around campus where Ohio State's basketball coach and post-scoring machine might need to introduce themselves. The national basketball stage is not one of them, so in a way the Buckeyes are working backwards as their on-court work for the 2011-12 season begins with Friday's official start to practice.
As long as their path is paved in Sullinger buckets and victories, as expected, the basketball bandwagon will continue to grow.
The timing for such growth has never been better.
The Ohio State football program is currently buried in a storm of uncharacteristic losses, frustrating suspensions and a seemingly never-ending scandal. Even though the Buckeyes have a winning basketball tradition and Matta's teams have won four Big Ten titles and won 20-plus games in all seven of Matta's season on the job, basketball has always kind of been that thing to do between the Rose Bowl and spring football practice.
The goal for these Buckeyes? To become that new team on campus that chases the national championship, then celebrates it at the spring football game. Or something like that.
The Buckeyes chased it last year, spending much of the season sitting atop both major polls and entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. It all came crashing down in the Sweet 16, though, as Kentucky's Brandon Knight made a late jumper to end the Buckeyes' season at 34-3.
Sullinger said he keeps a picture of Knight hitting that shot in his bathroom in his apartment.
"It's my motivator," Sullinger said.
And the 6'9, 265-pound Sullinger -- down 20 pounds without losing what's almost sure to be that million-dollar butt -- is the engine for these new Buckeyes, remade but restocked, short on upperclassmen but still pretty long on experience and pretty much anxious to match almost anybody in the athleticism department.
Sometimes, the stars align. There's the one really big star in Sullinger. There's a proven scorer in William Buford, a true point guard in Aaron Craft and, Matta hopes, more overall depth than last year. A beefed-up early schedule will be a proving ground, as Florida and Duke visit Columbus in November and the Buckeyes go to Kansas in December.
"Coach Matta talks about preseason (rankings) not meaning a thing," Sullinger said. "We're talking about March. We're trying to make it to that first week of April."
The NBA is locked out, which makes Sullinger's surprising -- to everyone but Sullinger himself -- decision to return for his sophomore season look even smarter. There's a chance more folks will watch more college basketball than ever. There's a chance more Ohio State fans will fall in love with basketball more than ever before.
"I hope that people understand what Jared means to this program and this university," Matta said. "Him choosing to come back, to me, that's a tremendous statement about what this program and university mean to him. This is in his blood. It's a unique situation.
"Anytime a player of his caliber chooses to come back, as a coach, to say 'jubilation' would be an understatement."
What Matta hopes are ahead include wins in those big games, sell-out crowds and a team that proves mature enough to handle it all. Buford being the lone senior isn't all that uncommon in today's college basketball landscape. The Buckeyes have natural leaders in Sullinger and Craft and talented reinforcements. If freshman Amir Williams, one of two 2011 McDonald's All-Americans in the recruiting class, or junior transfer Evan Ravenel develop in the post, Sullinger will be able to play more at the power forward spot and a little more away from the basket.
He averaged 17.2 points and 10 rebounds a game last year. Perhaps more impressive, he stayed a step ahead of most double teams with his unselfish play, stayed out of foul trouble and never seemed faze by growing expectations or the big stage.
He declined a chance to play for the Team USA's under-19 team this summer to remain in Columbus and help bring along these new freshmen. It's all hands on deck, including however many new fans looking for some Buckeye wins to celebrate.
"Everybody is expecting this team to go far," Sullinger said. "We're just trying to improve, trying to make that progression and eventually be that team everybody wants."
It was nothing short of a joke that Sullinger didn't win Big Ten Player of the Year last year. This year, he's (again) a legitimate candidate to be National Player of the Year. Buford was the second-leading scorer at 14.4, and Craft came off the bench, rarely left the floor after he did and guarded some of the Big Ten's best players, most of whom were bigger and faster than Craft.
Three key seniors are gone, but seven total letterwinners return. Sophomore DeShaun Thomas, he of NBA body and mentality, figures to step into the starting lineup and make up for some of the scoring that David Lighty and Jon Diebler did. Shannon Scott is that other former high-school All-American. Sophomores Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon, longtime AAU teammates of Craft and Sullinger, could help the chemistry and in the scoring department.
It all adds up to Ohio State basketball's chance at local legitimacy and national strength.
"We've had a pretty good run here of accomplishing what we've set out to do," Matta said. "People love Ohio State and want what's best for the university. (Getting more of the spotlight) doesn't change anything about the way we do things."
The calendar still very much says football season, and more than a few people in Columbus know the Florida game comes a few days before the Penn State football game and the Duke game comes a few days after the annual football battle with Michigan. By winning those games -- and eventually getting to April -- maybe a new calendar will be used in the future.
The new flagship program could be the basketball program. The new face of Ohio State sports could be Matta or Sullinger.
"I'd much rather that (face) be Jared," Matta said. "He's much better looking than I am."