Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Before the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s matchup with Kansas on Saturday, coach Thad Matta shook Kansas coach Bill Self’s hand.
“Merry Christmas,” Matta said.
Sophomore forward and likely player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger sat on the bench in street clothes for the second consecutive game with back spasms and the No. 2 Buckeyes lost, 78-67, to the No. 13 Jayhawks.
Both Matta and Self realized the big man’s absence was a break for Kansas.
“We caught a break,” Self said. “We’re not going to apologize for winning this one in any way, shape or form. I hope (Sullinger) gets back. I hope we get to play them again because that means we probably would have advanced in the NCAA tournament.”
Matta said he knew Saturday morning Sullinger wasn’t going to play and that it wasn’t worth pushing the injury this early in the season. As for the severity of the injury, Matta said Sullinger wanted to play and that if today were an NCAA Tournament game, he would have suited up.
“He was trying as hard as he could to convince us,” Matta said. “I think in this profession I want to keep my players’ best interest in mind. I want to keep the program’s best interest in mind. He’s doing much better.”
The Buckeyes missed Sullinger’s presence on both ends of the floor. Besides not having his customary inside presence on offense, Kansas junior forwards Kevin Young and Thomas Robinson combined for 35 points and 11 rebounds. OSU was also out-scored in the paint, 34-26.
OSU was forced to change the rotation it had used all season. Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas played all 40 minutes and junior forward Evan Ravenel was thrust into the starting lineup. Freshman center Amir Williams as a backup.
In the end, the changes appeared too much for OSU to handle.
“It’s a tremendous change (without Sullinger) because he’s the best big man in the country; maybe the best player in the country,” senior guard William Buford said. “When you’re missing out on that, you’re going to have some difficulties and have to make some adjustments.”
The Buckeyes shot just 39 percent from the floor and 29 percent from behind the arc while Kansas was able to shoot 58 percent for the game and connect on 53 percent on their 3-point attempts. Matta said that the team struggled without Sullinger in part because he’s normally the guy to bail the team out in tough spots.
“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.”
But beyond what shows up in the stat sheet, Matta said the biggest impact of Sullinger not playing was the absence of his winning mentality on the court. Matta said Sullinger is the guy that huddles the team in tough spots and above all, knows how to win.
“Jared’s a winner,” Matta said. “He wins. Thus far in his college career he’s lost three games. Four now with this one, but that’s rubbed off on some of our guys…We definitely look forward to his return.”
OSU travels back home to play to play the University of South Carloina Upstate on Wednesday and Sullinger’s status is still uncertain. Opening tip at the Schottenstein Center is set for 7:30 p.m.