At Value City Arena in a short while, William Buford will be honored for Senior Day as the lone senior from an accomplished Buckeye basketball team that has won a pair of Big Ten regular season titles, two Big Ten Conference Tournament championships, and that has made two Sweet 16 appearances with Buford’s help, with a chance to still accomplish all those things and more this season. Part of all that as well has been sophomore center Jared Sullinger, who may very well, like Buford, be playing his last game in Columbus for the scarlet and gray. Few players in the Thad Matta era have been as big a fan favorite, as consistent a performer, and as proud to be a Buckeye as Sullinger has.
Sullinger, projected to be a Top 5-10 pick in last year’s draft, opted to return to Ohio State, as he and his father said he would all along. The uncertainty of the NBA season may have made that decision easier for Sully, but more than that, it was his desire to work on his game and win a national championship. In year two, Sullinger hasn’t improved much statistically (averaging 17.2 points per game again, rebounds down from 10.2 to 9.0 per game, FG% up from 54.1% to 55.5%) though a lot of that can be attributed to increased defensive attention with the departures of David Lighty and Jon Diebler along with the struggles of William Buford. What Sullinger has added is a three-point shooting threat (he’s 11-for-27 this year for 41%). He’s also battled multiple injuries (bruised foot, plantar fasciitis, and back spasms) that caused him to miss two games and leave another early in the first half. Whereas the Buckeyes were on everyone’s radar last season as the favorite of many to win it all, very few, if any, experts feel that way right now. Michigan State is the golden child of the Big Ten as a result of their victory in Columbus, one where Sullinger had 10 turnovers and was outplayed by Adreian Payne.
For Sullinger to lead the Buckeyes to the Final Four, he’ll need to play his best basketball as a Buckeye. As perimeter-oriented as this team has become, Sullinger must work harder to fight for post position and demand the ball. The Buckeyes will face packed-in zone defenses, and Sully will have to navigate through countless double teams. Physical teams will try to get into Sullinger’s head with cheap shots, and less physical teams will try to bait him into foul trouble with flops. The bullseye is firmly on #0′s often-highlighted backside. Sullinger must avoid the temptation to lash out, not allow himself to hang around the perimeter, and fight for every inch he can get on that block.
Jared is once again in that 5-10 range of the NBA mock drafts right now. He’s nearly proven all that he can skill-wise in Columbus. In my opinion, with the exception of trying to win a national title, there’s no reason for Sullinger to return. Some people feel that from his freshman to sophomore campaign, Sullinger has only solidified his limitations with his average height at best for a power forward and his lack of leaping ability. If Sullinger did come back, he would have a great chance to make another deep tournament run and cement himself as one of the greatest to ever come through the program.
Just as terrifying a notion for me as the uncertainty of this season’s outcome is next season’s outlook. If this team loses Sully after the season, can they be expected to compete in the Big Ten? The Buckeyes have had some deep and solid recruiting classes, but there is no Oden, Turner, or Sullinger laying on the back end of the Bucks’ roster or coming in next season. Deshaun Thomas, if he does indeed return (I think he will), will be the focal point of the offense, and he may very well average 20 points a game with increased shot attempts and reliance on him. Aaron Craft will continue to be the pesky, level-headed point who can provide scoring in stretches. The real question is whether someone from this freshman class will rise to prominence in year two. Whether it’s point guard Shannon Scott, who has struggled with his shot, center Amir Williams, who has been eaten up on defense, or LaQuinton Ross, the victim of late eligibility that has no doubt cost him meaningful playing time, the Buckeyes need someone to emerge. There is a slim hope, too, that the Buckeyes could nab either five-star forward Amile Jefferson or five-star center Tony Parker if Sullinger does leave. However, that will involve outmatching the recruiting likes of Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky, among others.
This afternoon, though, with the focus still on what can be done this season, the Buckeyes take the floor against the recent rival and fourth-place Wisconsin Badgers. Just like last year when I was unsure if Sullinger would return despite what he said, I’ll take a moment to reflect on Jared Sullinger the Buckeye and appreciate all that he’s done for this basketball program in two incredibly fun years.
(Photo: Paul Vernon/AP)