Sullinger Returns to Form in Win Over Northwestern
By Brandon Castel
EVANSTON, Ill. — Thad Matta told his star big man, Jared Sullinger, that Ohio State goes as he goes.
He was right, at least this time.
Sullinger snapped out of his slump, and whatever mental funk he has been in, with 22 points and 18 rebounds Wednesday night at Northwestern. He also hit the game-winning bank-shot with three seconds on the clock to keep the Buckeyes alive in the hunt for a regular season Big Ten title.
“That's the Jared that's playing his best basketball, not complaining, not arguing or anything like that, doing his work on the offensive glass and defensively,” said point guard Aaron Craft, who has played with Sullinger since their high school days on the same AAU team.
“That's what he does. It's awesome just to see that and hopefully we can continue to build off of that.”
It is a little late in the year to start building, or rebuilding, a team’s identity, but Sullinger is that important to everything the Buckeyes do, at both ends of the court.
When he is fully engaged and focused, he is a National Player of the Year candidate. More importantly, Ohio State is a national title contender. Whenever he seems disinterested, or when he is more worried about the officials than himself, the Buckeyes struggle to find a rhythm offensively.
“Mentally, I was kind of messed up with a couple of things that were going on,” Sullinger said after the game.
“I just fought off those mental errors and focused on this basketball game.”
It is a good thing he did, because the Buckeyes needed every point he gave them Wednesday, including the final two on a great pass from Craft that gave Ohio State a 75-73 lead with three seconds to play.
John Shurna nearly ruined it with what would have been one of the all-time great halfcourt buzzer-beaters on Senior Day at Northwestern.
Instead, Sullinger notched his 12th double-double of the season (30th of his career) in a Buckeye victory, their 24th of the season. It was Sullinger’s first double-digit rebounding game since Ohio State’s 58-48 loss to Michigan State back on Feb. 11.
He had 17 and 16 in that game, but since then, his rebounding numbers had gone 8, 8, 6, 6 over the last four games—two of them losses to Michigan and Wisconsin.
“I haven't been rebounding as well as I did last year, I think,” Sullinger admitted.
“Jordan Sibert told me 'You're most effective when you're rebounding the basketball.’ Today I was determined to rebound the basketball and everything kind pulled into my game.”
Sullinger had 11 of Ohio State’s 20 offensive rebounds and the Buckeyes outscored Northwestern 20-7 on second-chance points. He kept his game inside, around the paint, rather than settling for deep jumpers or three-point shots, which he has been effective with at times, but is certainly not his game.
He scored on putbacks. He hit his free throws (6-8 at the line) and he popped out once for a nice 15-foot jumper around the free-throw line. It looked like old Sully was back, even if it came against a small Northwestern front court—one which feature Shurna, a 6-9 shooter, at the center position to start the game.
“I came into this game just to rebound,” Sullinger said.
“When I'm focused on rebounding, my game just flows with it.”
The Buckeyes outrebounded Northwestern 44-18, which meant Sullinger grabbed as many boards himself as the Wildcats had as a team.
A big part of that is Bill Carmody’s style.
He likes to spread the floor with shooters, which explains why half (13) of their baskets came from behind the arc. Defensively, Northwestern was in a 1-3-1 zone for much of the game. That makes rebounding even more difficult for a team like the Wildcats, but this is more about Sullinger than any opponent.
It almost always is.
Not all of his 18 rebounds were handed to him. The Wildcats had a lot to play for, maybe more than Ohio State. Sullinger had to fight through a crowd a number of times to come down with a rebound, which he did.
He fought, and that was the important thing. This team is going to have to fight for every win they get from this point forward, and like Matta said, as Sullinger goes, so go the Buckeyes.
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