Ohio State traveled to Gainesville, Fla., two weeks ago to play the then-No. 9-ranked Florida Gators. In what remains the only true test for the Buckeyes so far this year, OSU cruised to an 18-point victory on the shoulders of center Jared Sullinger’s second double-double in as many games.
Since that game, however, things haven’t been quite as easy for the freshman. Although the Buckeyes won each of their last three games handily, Sullinger has scored no more than 12 points and has failed to reach double digits in rebounds since his 26-point, 10-rebound performance at Florida.
Tonight, he will again have the chance to prove himself on a national stage when the Buckeyes return to Florida, this time to Tallahassee, to play Florida State as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Sullinger said perhaps he wasn’t quite as motivated as he needed to be against the Buckeyes’ lesser opponents and knows it’s something he’ll need to fix. But more than anything, Sullinger said, teams have been more prepared for him in recent games.
“Sometimes, as a freshman, you walk out there and you think, ‘I’m just going to do the same thing I did last game,'” Sullinger said. “Coach (Thad) Matta told me, ‘The first couple games, you’re going to get what you want and later down the season, it’s going to be tough.’ I see what he means now.”
Matta, who has extensive experience with talented freshmen in his five years at OSU, knows better than anybody that playing at the collegiate level can take some getting used to. The difference in the amount of effort needed in the high school and college game, he said, is something most freshmen take a while to get adjusted to.
But as Matta said, both he and Sullinger know it’s all part of the process.
“I think that there is a learning curve there,” Matta said. “I think that there are certain times in high school where you can show up and be 60 or 70 percent and still get 20 points, eight rebounds and a couple of steals. But now everybody is on scholarship, everybody wants to win and everybody is a little bit more athletic.”
That is not to say, however, that Sullinger has been a disappointment. He leads the team with more than eight rebounds per game and is second with just more than 15 points per contest.
It has been the lack of consistency early in the season that has hampered Sullinger. It’s something Matta said can only improve with time.
“You can’t create experience. They’ve got to get it,” Matta said. “Sometimes you have to stumble, fall and learn from it.”
Much like two weeks ago against Florida, several freshmen are expected to play in tonight’s game and will have to play well if the Buckeyes hope to win. Along with Sullinger, fellow freshmen Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft will likely see plenty of playing time tonight against the Seminoles.
Though they might be inexperienced, Sullinger said he and his teammates know what to expect.
“The crowd is going to be loud and they’re going to say some negative things toward you and toward your family. But you just have to let that go in one ear and out the other,” Sullinger said. “They paid for their seats and they’re going to say what they’re going to say and try and get you out of your game. You just have to play through it.”
Tonight’s game against the Seminoles, which Matta referred to as a “Big Ten-type game,” will give the young Buckeyes much-needed experience. Though FSU has lost some of its better players from last year’s team that the Buckeyes beat by 13 points in Columbus in November, they do return Preseason All-ACC forward Chris Singleton.
Singleton, a junior, averages more than 15 points a game and is the biggest contributor to what Matta called a “high-powered” FSU offense. Stopping Singleton, or at least slowing him down, will potentially be the job of senior David Lighty, the Buckeyes’ best defender.
Now in his fifth year in the program, Lighty has quietly played perhaps the best basketball of his career.
“He’s one of my all-time favorites because of how he practices and the dedication he’s given to the program,” Matta said. “Watching him play at the level he’s played at thus far is very exciting to me.”
Known for his prowess on the defensive end, Lighty has rarely been one to control the game on the offensive end. But when the team needs him, he has been dependable.
This season has been no exception. With the freshmen and even some of the veterans struggling at times, Lighty has been forced to take a more active role on the offensive end to give the Buckeyes a spark.
Take last Friday’s game against Miami (Ohio), for example. After a sluggish start, the Buckeyes led by just five points in the second half. Lighty then took a more aggressive approach on offense, and OSU pulled away with a 21-point win.
Lighty finished with 21 points to lead all scorers and made all four of his 3-point attempts.
“I’m just going out and playing, sticking to the system, reading defenses and trying to attack as much as possible,” Lighty said. “I pretty much do anything or everything, so if it’s get a defensive stop, that’s what I’m going to do. If it’s to score at the time, then that’s what we’re trying to do.
“I’m just out there playing the game like I’ve been doing.”
Whether it’s Lighty, Sullinger or another Buckeye handling the bulk of the scoring, Matta just hopes someone will step up.
“We’ve played five games and we’ve had four different leading scorers,” he said. “I don’t know who it’ll be (tonight), but hopefully he’s got a lot.”