Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 3/11/12
INDIANAPOLIS - The Jared Sullinger you saw Sunday was gassed. The Jared Sullinger you saw all weekend at the Big Ten Tournament is the player Sullinger is capable of being. He's the player who can push the Buckeyes all the way through the NCAA Tournament, too. A classic Big Ten Tournament title game Sunday didn't go the Buckeyes way down the stretch, and Michigan State certainly earned the right to be remembered as the best team in the nation's best conference this year. But Ohio State is playing well again, has shaken off whatever caused that rut of a month ago and should feel good about its chances going forward. We still don't know if the Buckeyes can make enough outside shots to get to the Final Four, but with Sullinger playing aggressively and assertively as he has over the last two weeks, it's a very real possibility. Sullinger admitted a few weeks ago that he was distracted by outside criticism of his play and affected by the way games were being officiated. His body language was especially bad in an early February home loss to Michigan State, a game in which he was charged with 10 turnovers as a quick defense used multiple defenders to beat him to spots and Sullingers teammates offered little help in the way of making outside shots. Going all the way back to a couple of minor injuries that forced him to miss some time in December, the usually ultra-consistent Sullinger was hit and miss for much of the season. He's locked in now, and with the way Deshaun Thomas has played over the last several weeks the Buckeyes have a post game that only a few other teams in the NCAA Tournament field can match. Sullinger has shown off more of an outside game, too, and he's needed to on a team that struggles to score from the perimeter. Sullinger made the Buckyes' first 3-pointer of the game Sunday as part of an early second-half Buckeyes run. Ohio State was of 0-of-6 on 3-point tries in the first half. Brandon Wood of Michigan State made the most -- and most important -- 3-pointers Sunday afternoon, and Michigan State held on for a 68-64 win. Ohio State took a seven-point lead in the second half before Wood sparked a 10-0 run that proved to be the clincher. "We are playing well," Sullinger said after Sunday's game. "We didn't execute in this game and we didn't play to our capabilities. "Fortunately, we have another day of practice. Now, it's one and done." Sullinger is averaging 17.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the season, almost identical numbers to the ones he posted last year, when he was the National Freshman of the Year and the clear MVP on the NCAA Tournament's top overall seed. He had 30 points and 12 rebounds in Friday night's quarterfinal win over Purdue. He scored 24 and had 6 rebounds in Saturday's semifinal win over Michigan. More important than the numbers, though, was his energy level at both ends and the way the Buckeyes spaced the floor and emphasized throwing it to Sullinger in the post. "Jared probably had this three best pracitces of the year last week and I knew he was going to come in this weekend and play well," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We need to continue to get him rested, get his body taken care of. That's the hard part of playing three games in three days here. And you could be playing in four days here again, so we'll make sure he gets his rest." Sullinger missed a few shots he normally doesn't Sunday -- chalk that up to fatigue and pretty good Michigan State defense -- but finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds. He was held to nine first-half minutes due to foul trouble and shot just 7-of-19 for the game. For the second straight year, the NCAA Tournament's top storyline involves a game-changing freshman post player and his quest to lead his team to trophy. Anthony Davis of Kentucky might be better than Sullinger was last year -- Davis should be the National Player of the Year -- and he might be the kind of athletic shot-blocker who ultimately wins a battle with Sullinger. "The main goal is to win a national championship," Sullinger said. "We're focused on that. One game at a time." Ohio State looks like a team that's capable of reaching that point and eventually finding that out. It's a different Buckeye team than last year's senior-laden group that lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. It's still a team that's going to follow Sullinger, and it's a team with a real chance to reach New Orleans.
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