NEW ORLEANS — Jared Sullinger was born to be an Ohio State Buckeye.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
His father, Satch, has coached basketball in the Columbus area for 30 years. His older brother, J.J., was Ohio State’s captain in 2006.
And when J.J.’s career ended in a second-round upset loss to Georgetown in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, he gave Jared, then an eighth-grader, some advice while still on the court in Dayton, Ohio.
“We met at halfcourt and (J.J.) was crying,” Jared Sullinger said. “He said, ‘If Coach (Thad) Matta ever offers you a scholarship, take it because there’s no coach like him.’
“That was kind of an emotional reason why I came here. ... It’s my big brother, and I always looked up to him, so why not follow his footsteps?”
Sullinger, a 6-9, 265 pound sophomore, not only followed his brother’s footsteps, he trampled them, leading the Buckeyes to their first Final Four since 2007.
“I think I outdid my brother already with winning two Big Ten regular-season (titles) and a tournament championship,” Sullinger said Thursday at the Superdome after the Buckeyes practiced for Saturday night’s Final Four game against Kansas.
“Getting past the second round … our university has been waiting for a basketball team like this since 2007. We’re just trying to turn the frowns upside down. (Ohio State) had a tough season right after they got to the national championship game in ’07, went to the NIT, won that, and from there, we started steady going.”
Matta’s first recollection of Sullinger was as “fat little Jared.” Sullinger weighed 294 pounds after his senior year in high school, but a summer boxing program in 2010 knocked off 30 pounds before he began his Ohio State career.
As a freshman, Sullinger earned all-American honors as he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game and led the Buckeyes to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But they were upset by Kentucky 62-60 in the East Regional semifinals on a basket by the Wildcats’ Brandon Knight with 5.4 seconds to play.
It was generally assumed that Sullinger would declare for the NBA Draft last spring, but falling short of the Final Four haunted him.
He decided to return for another year and posted in his bathroom a photo of Knight’s game-winning shot as a daily reminder of what he wants to accomplish.
“I wasn’t ready,” Sullinger said of leaving for the NBA, “and I couldn’t go out that way. This program means a lot to me. That’s the biggest thing for coming back this year is this program and everything it’s done for me.”
Despite battling some back spasms that caused him to miss three starts and two games — including a loss at Kansas — Sullinger averaged a team-high 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds, and earned all-America honors again as Ohio State went 31-7.
“I made the right decision as soon as I said I was coming back, without a doubt,” Sullinger said. “I knew it was a chance for me to work on my game and elevate my game and win — that’s the biggest thing. I don’t like losing. Winning is the big key for me.”
Kansas center Jeff Withey, who will defend Sullinger on Saturday night, realizes what a difference Sullinger will make in the rematch.
“He’s obviously a big body, a big strong guy,” Withey said. “So keeping him out of the paint is the most important thing. Giving him different looks … Thomas (Robinson) and I will be on him … and not letting him get easy points.
“A lot of times he just backs guys down and gets easy points. Everything we do, we want to make him work and make him uncomfortable.”
Sullinger agrees that his biggest attribute under the basket is his derriere.
“I have one trick (in the paint), and that’s my butt,” Sullinger said. “As long as I’ve got my best friend on my back side, I’m good.”
He’s been better than good in the NCAA Tournament. Sullinger was voted Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional after averaging 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in wins over Cincinnati and top-seed Syracuse, including a 23-point, 11-rebound performance against the Bearcats.
And now Sullinger is two wins from justifying his decision to stay in school one more year.
“As Jared was coming through the ranks, to see it all unfold, to get him in here, and him be a two-time all-American …” Matta said. “ … to see his record at Ohio State (65-10) … it’s astonishing.
“He has put a major stamp on this program, and most importantly, the stamp we want on this program of how we do things and the type of program we run. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a player that Ohio State means more to. This university means a ton to him.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/randycovitz.