Matta Made Precautionary Decision

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Last updated: 12/12/2011 12:24 PM

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Men's Basketball
Matta Made Precautionary Decision to Sit Sullinger
By Brandon Castel

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The decision to sit Jared Sullinger for Ohio State’s big road test at Kansas on Saturday was not an easy one for anyone, but it was one head coach Thad Matta felt he needed to make.

Jared Sullinger
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jared Sullinger

"This morning; we were gauging him, but we didn't really have a good feel about it,” Matta said after the game.

“He was trying as hard as he could to convince us (to let him play), but I think in this profession, I'm looking out for my players' best interest and I'm looking out for our program's best interest.”

That was the promise Matta made to both Sullinger and his dad, Satch, after Jared aggravated a disk in his back during Ohio State’s 85-63 win over Duke back on Nov. 29. Had it been March 10th instead of Dec. 10th, maybe Sullinger would have at least come out for warmups to test out his back instead of making his first appearance in jeans and a sweater.

“Make sure you write that this was not an NCAA Tournament game, so people understand that,” Matta said following Ohio State’s 78-67 loss at “Phog” Allen Fieldhouse.

Had it been a do-or-die situation for the Buckeyes, Sullinger might have forced Matta and his staff to physically restrain him in order to keep him from suiting up against a team like Kansas. But this isn’t March and Ohio State was not playing a must-win game.

Certainly they wanted to win the game and continue their unbeaten streak to start the season, but if any team could afford to drop a game like this it was Ohio State. The Buckeyes have already beaten two top-10 teams this season in Florida and Duke and they are coming off back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16.

They also learned that winning 24 straight games to start the season doesn’t guarantee any more success in the tournament.

“This is one game. Nobody hurts more than Jared does. You see the students out there, and that's the kind of thing that gets him going, these environments excites him,” Matta said.

“But it's one game out of 40, and I didn't feel comfortable, to be honest with you, for the long haul.”

Kansas coach Bill Self said he was hoping Sullinger would take the court in front of the sold-out crowd in Lawrence, but he can’t disagree with Matta’s decision not to play his star big man, even in a regular-season game of that magnitude.

“Trust me, our guys were hoping he was going to play. I talked to Thad before the game, from their standpoint it wasn’t worth it if he’s nicked up,” Self said afterward.

“They have a chance to win it all, so there’s no reason to try to win this game and risk anything down the road. That was smart by them if in fact that’s where he’s at.”

Exactly “where” Sullinger is at remains the biggest question surrounding Ohio State. With him, the Buckeyes are one of the front-runners for the nation championship, and a clear favorite to win the Big Ten Conference.

Self doesn’t see much of a drop-off for Matta’s team if they have to survive without their All-American center for much longer.

“I thought Ohio state is still a top-10 team without him,” he said.

“We’re not going to apologize for beating Ohio State without Sullinger, it’s still a great win for us. We beat a top-10 team even without him.”

Self has a vested interest in Ohio State’s success, or lack there of, now that his Jayhawks are counting the Buckeyes as a signature win. It would look much worse that they allowed Ohio State to hang around for nearly 40 minute Saturday if it turns out the Buckeyes are not a very good team without their star sophomore.

Ohio State is not thinking that way either.

“We probably knew he wasn't going to play all week and we took that as a challenge,” point guard Aaron Craft said.

“We needed some guys to step up; the guys that don't play and the ones that don't play a lot."

Without Sullinger, Ohio State played Kansas as tough as anyone could have hoped. They got 15 points from Deshaun Thomas in the first half, 17 from William Buford in the second and another cunning performance from Craft, but they couldn’t stop Thomas Robinson in the final minutes of the game.

Had Sullinger been out there, it likely would have been a different story, but nothing is guaranteed.

“Don't put an asterisk next to this. Ohio State can certainly say, and rightfully say, ‘well Jared didn’t play.’ We know they’re a much better team with him and we wanted him to play, without question,” Self said.

“Just because he would have played doesn’t guarantee anything. I think he’s the leading candidate to be the national player of the year. We caught a break from a winning standpoint, him not playing.”

If Sullinger returns to the lineup on Wednesday against South Carolina Upstate or Saturday against the University of South Carolina, then missing the Kansas game was really an insignificant blip on the radar.

Certainly the Buckeyes would have had a much better chance to win the game with Sullinger in the lineup, but one loss compared the outcome of an entire season is vastly inconsequential.

“He's doing much better, but we just want to see how he feels the next day after he practices,” Matta said.

“I'm never going to jeopardize one of my players' futures.”

If, however, Sullinger has to miss many more games, this back injury suddenly becomes more and more of a concern with every day that he isn’t out there.

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