Sullinger Driven to Final Four by His Will to Win
By Brandon Castel
BOSTON — Jared Sullinger came to Ohio State to win a national championship. Now he’s just two victories away.
After sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble Saturday, Sullinger returned in the second half to enforce his will on Syracuse in a 77-70 victory. Sullinger scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds, helping to propel the Buckeyes to a place the star sophomore had always dreamed he would one day be.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“This is definitely what I came back for,” he said Saturday night from beneath his 2012 NCAA Regional Champions hat.
“To play in the Final Four. To get past the Sweet 16, to play in the Elite Eight, I can name everything I came back for.”
During Sullinger’s first year with the program, the Buckeyes were the best team in the country, at least in the regular season. They earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, but stumbled, yet again, in the Sweet 16, after being handed one of the toughest regions in the Big Dance.
Moments after Ohio State’s stunning two-point loss to Kentucky in Newark, Sullinger sat calmly on a training table in the team’s locker room at the Prudential Center and vowed he would be back.
“I don’t like the look in people’s eyes and I didn’t like the taste we had in our mouths,” Sullinger said last March, minutes after experiencing just the third loss of his college career.
“I don’t like losing. I hate losing.”
It didn’t seem possible he could truly mean it in that moment, not with the sting of defeat fresh in his mind. Not with the tears still glistening on the faces of Ohio State’s three seniors—Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale.
The whole thing was too fresh, too surprising for a team many expected to go all the way to the Final Flour—and perhaps win the whole thing while they were there.
But Sullinger did come back, true to his word, for his sophomore season at Ohio State; something fans weren’t quite used to from star big men under Thad Matta.
shows his delight with the OSU win over the Orange.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“He’s got that winning mentality, that refuse to lose mentality,” OSU assistant Jeff Boals said.
“His goal is to win a national championship and he’s won on every level. He has an unbelievable will to win.”
It is that desire to win every time he steps on the court that makes Sullinger one of the most dominant—and most consistent—players in the country. It is also what suddenly makes Ohio State one of the most dangerous teams heading to New Orleans next week.
“It's not a vacation, it's a business trip,” Sullinger said.
“We have to handle our business professionally. At the end of the day we're there to win two games.”
Sullinger has been all business in the tournament, with his mind focused on getting to New Orleans and coming back with the trophy. It has been the one thing he has craved since the moment he stepped foot on Ohio State’s campus, and he made sure to put his team in position with an MVP performance in the East Regional finals in Boston.
That passion for winning—and equal contempt for losing—also made this season one of the hardest in Sullinger’s entire career. After injuring his back early in the year, Sullinger had his game, and his psyche, picked apart.
After starting the season 8-0, the Buckeyes lost three games before the middle of January. They lost three more in the span of 15 days during February, but Sullinger never waivered from his decision, despite what was unprecedented losing for the Columbus Northland product.
smiles as he looks up at the scoreboard in the waning seconds of the game against Syracuse.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I never doubted it,” he said after beating Syracuse Saturday.
“Not at all. With the team we have, I knew we had a chance. Right now we're just seizing the moment. They're not suppose to be easy. We took a couple bumps to the head and we iced those down and put our guard up.”
Sullinger certainly put his guard up.
He became easily frustrated and seemed to lose his focus during the course of games. He allowed the refs—and apparently the media—to throw him off and mess with his head. It got so bad at one point, Matta and Boals had to sit Sullinger down to help him get his mind right.
“He had a week-and-a-half to two-week stretch where he was frustrated, but he’s a mature kid. He’s an even keeled kid,” Boals said.
“That was out of character for Jared. The kid was like the energizer bunny. That’s why we were surprised by it. Any kid would get frustrated with that, but he regrouped and bounced back, and that’s the type of kid he is.”
Because of it, the Buckeyes are headed to the Final Four, where they will face the winner of North Carolina-Kansas next Saturday in New Orleans. It’s a childhood dream of Sullinger’s to play on college basketball’s biggest stage, but he won’t be satisfied with just being there.
“When you see ‘One Shining Moment,’ you hope you're the last one they show,” he said.
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