Cody Cousino / Photo editor
INDIANAPOLIS — Questions.
Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger has been faced with them for months now, but after his 30-point performance against Purdue Friday, the Buckeye big man might be providing answers.
After Sullinger had to sit out the two games following OSU’s victory against Duke because of a foot injury, doubts about Sullinger’s game have routinely trickled to the surface.
Is he still hurt? Did his highly publicized weight loss backfire? Is he worrying too much about the refs?
Those questions might never have been more prominent than when the Buckeyes lost on Senior Day to Wisconsin, 63-60. Sullinger had just eight points and six rebounds. It was the team’s third loss in five games and many questioned whether the Buckeye team was destined for another March with an early exit.
Two days after the loss, Sullinger admitted outside factors had started to affect his game.
“It is just the little stuff,” Sullinger said. “It is just me letting the refs get to me, or letting everything on the outside get to me and letting it creep in. I was focusing on other stuff besides the basketball team and what this team needs me to do to win basketball games.”
But since that moment, whether intentionally or not, it appears Sullinger has started providing answers.
In the three games after the Wisconsin loss, Sullinger has hit a game winner against Northwestern, led the team on a second half comeback to win the Big Ten regular season championship against Michigan State, and helped advance his team to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Friday against Purdue, Sullinger scored 30 points, added 12 rebounds, and blocked three shots in the Buckeyes’ 88-71 victory. It was his fourth double-double in four games at the Big Ten tournament, which ties a record.
What’s been the difference?
Ironically, like some of his distractions, Sullinger said the solution came from off the court.
“My support system told me to smile and have fun,” Sullinger said. “I didn’t really look at that. I was watching my games. When I went on a slump if you want to call it a slump, I wasn’t smiling. I just always had a snarl on my face and didn’t look like I was happy.”
But the Buckeye big man said he decided to heed the advice of his parents, girlfriend and brothers. He started smiling.
“I’ve just been doing that and I have 30 points,” he said. “Lucky me.”
His teammates have noticed a big difference.
“At first, things just seemed like they wasn’t clicking for him,” said sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. “So when he just relaxed and got into his own game and played at his own pace, slowly but surely things just started to work out for him. Sometimes he gets called for fouls that earlier in the season he probably would have complained and, like a lot of people said, be a baby about it. But now he’s manning up, taking the calls, and getting on to the next play.”
Sullinger’s improvement has been mirrored by the team as a whole. After the Wisconsin game, Buckeyes have rattled off three straight victories. The victory against Purdue sets up a rubber match against Michigan after OSU split the regular season series.
“We was counting ourselves out after we lost to Wisconsin and then Indiana opened up doors for us,” Sullinger said. “And then everybody was counting us out after we was down by 15 to Michigan State and we just kept battling. We’ve just grown as a basketball team, having fun and being ourselves.”
For the Buckeyes to continue to be successful, Sullinger’s teammates said the performances can’t stop. He needs to continue his strong play, stay relaxed and keep smiling.
“It’s extremely crucial,” said junior forward Evan Ravenel. “He’s the best post player in America.”
OSU and Michigan will tip off 25 minutes after the conclusion of the first semifinal game between Wisconsin and Michigan State at 1:40 p.m.