Sullinger Finds His Smile As March Begins
By Ben Axelrod
INDIANAPOLIS — After a particularly rough stretch in February that saw Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger fail to notch double-digit points and rebounds in consecutive games, the preseason All-American’s support system knew exactly what was missing from his game: his smile.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Throughout a freshman season that saw the Buckeye big man average 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, perhaps no feature of Sullinger’s stood out more than the childish grin that he would seemingly flash multiple times throughout each game.
But during a stretch throughout the final month of the regular season of his sophomore year that saw him score nine points against Illinois and eight points in a loss to Wisconsin, Sullinger’s smile was seldom seen.
His family noticed.
“My support system: Julian Sullinger, James Sullinger, Jr., James Sullinger, Sr., Barbara Sullinger, and DeAnn Smith told me I don’t smile enough,” Jared said, referencing his two brothers, parents, and girlfriend.
“They said when I’m smiling and having fun, my game comes out.”
In the Buckeyes’ second round game of 2012 Big Ten Tournament on Friday, the two-time All-Big Ten selection had plenty to smile about. Sullinger posted a season-high 30 points to go along with 12 rebounds and three blocks.
The outburst—which marked the first time Sullinger scored 25 or more points in a game since Jan. 7—was good enough to help lead the No. 7-ranked Buckeyes (26-6, 13-5) to an 88-71 victory over Purdue (21-12, 10-8) on Friday night.
After the game, Sullinger attributed his success to the way his team spaced itself against the Boilermakers.
“We've been working on offense execution, spacing, every little thing we always talked about in practice,” Sullinger said.
“Coming into this tournament, I thought that was the biggest key for this basketball team. And, I mean, this basketball team found me when I was open and I was blessed enough to make the shots.”
OSU coach Thad Matta agreed that his team did a good job creating space for its leading player to operate, especially compared to the 4-of-9 shooting performance that Sullinger displayed on Feb. 7 in the Buckeyes first meeting with Purdue.
“Jared had a good way about him in terms of his movement,” Matta said.
“In the first game, every time he tried to cut, there was collisions. And it was good to see that we were able to move the way we wanted to move effectively.”
The Columbus native’s dominate performance was reflected in the OSU box score, not only in his stat line, but the team’s as well. Thank to his season-highs in both blocks and points, the Buckeyes held a 48-18 scoring advantage in the paint over Purdue, something that Sullinger didn’t mind taking credit for.
“Not trying to toot my own horn, but we played through me,” Sullinger said.
“Obviously, when we see the double, our guards understand that if they get into the open spot, they're going to have a knockdown jump shot, or if they don't double, they're going to let me go work. So I thought that was the biggest key to this game.”
But not all of the 2011 Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year’s success came banging bodies in the paint of Friday. With 37 seconds remaining in the first half, Sullinger used a ball fake to shake a Purdue defender and found himself wide-open for a 3-point shot attempt. The sophomore forward drained the shot, extending the OSU lead to 40-36 heading into intermission.
“When he bit on the ball fake, I was like ‘yes,’” Sullinger said. “I was just going to let it fly.”
That 3-point shot sealed a 15-point first half performance for Sullinger, something he would replicate in the second half that started when he scored eight of the Buckeyes’ first 12 points after intermission.
OSU’s Sullinger-fueled second half start played a crucial role in a dominating second half that saw the Buckeyes lead by as many as 18 points and advance to the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament where they’ll meet No. 10 Michigan (24-8, 13-5) for the sixth time in the past two seasons.
Having averaged 14.4 points in his first five meetings with the Wolverines, Sullinger isn’t sure what to expect when he faces his Big Ten rivals on Saturday, but he did flash his patented smile at the thought of a rubber match against a team that the Buckeyes split their regular season series with.
“It’s always good to go against the school up north,” he said with a laugh. “They call us ‘Ohio,’ so we’re going to call them ‘the school up north.’ It’s always great.”