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Commentary: Jared Sullinger’s absence will help Ohio State in the long run

Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Ohio State may have lost to Kansas Saturday, but the decision to keep sophomore forward Jared Sullinger out of the game will be better for the team in the long run.

See, the Buckeyes lost without their best player. Sullinger, a preseason All-American, sat on the sidelines in street clothes for the second consecutive game because of back spasms stemming from OSU’s Nov. 29 win against Duke.

Since Sullinger has donned Scarlet and Gray, he’s been the center of the team (literally and figuratively). Everything runs through him.

It’s been the classic inside-out mentality.

Have a stud inside player, feed him the ball and kick it out to the wing players who can make open shots when the double team comes.

It worked with Hakeem Olajuwon and the 1997 Houston Rockets (NBA Championship). It worked with Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor at UCLA during the John Wooden-era (NCAA championships), and it almost worked with the 2009 Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard (NBA Finals appearance).

So far, it’s worked pretty well for the Buckeyes, too. Including Saturday’s loss to Kansas, OSU has compiled 42-4 record during Sullinger’s time at OSU.

But the problem with the inside-out mentality is that it all revolves around one man. If that man goes down, so does the team’s entire identity.

OSU looked like a team without an identity Saturday. At times, scoring was definitely a struggle. The open shots that the players were accustomed to being there all of the sudden weren’t. Players forced shots and, with 39 percent shooting from the field and a 29 percent clip from behind the arc, it showed.

I think OSU coach Thad Matta said it best in the postgame press conference.

“In a lot of ways Jared is a security mechanism because, if things aren’t going right, he always gets open,” Matta said. “It may be at two feet from the bucket or it may be at 20 feet from the bucket. When the ball is in his hands, you know good things are going to happen.”

On Saturday, the security mechanism was gone and OSU’s other players couldn’t bail the team out.

Don’t get me wrong. OSU is not a one-man team. In my opinion, senior guard William Buford is an NBA-caliber player, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas may have more potential than anyone else on the team and sophomore guard Aaron Craft is about as solid of a point guard as there is in college basketball.

If Sullinger had left for the NBA, I think OSU would still be a top-15 team. Kansas coach Bill Self said he thinks OSU is still a top-5 team without Sullinger.

But no matter what anyone says, Sullinger is the focus.

Here’s why all of this is good, though.

I’ve always heard that if someone goes blind, the other senses are strengthened. They can smell and hear better than ever before, almost as if the body is compensating for what it’s missing.

Sullinger is the Buckeyes’ sense of sight, and Saturday, the team was blind. I think the team grew and other players started to compensate. Thomas showed flashes of brilliance and, despite a slow start, Buford really started to create some offense for himself when the team was in desperate need in the second half.

They learned how to walk without seeing, and while it wasn’t enough in the end, the experience was invaluable.

Luckily for OSU, Sullinger could be back as early as Wednesday for its game against South Carolina-Upstate. The team will get its sight back and other senses will be strengthened as well.

In tough spots, the Buckeyes will be able to look at other players to step up in the future.

For a basketball team, that’s important — maybe more important than a marquee road win in December.

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