Sullinger Still Questionhable

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Last updated: 12/14/2011 12:10 PM

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Men's Basketball
Sullinger Status Still in Question
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thad Matta already knew what the first question was going to be before he even sat down at the podium on Tuesday to preview Ohio State’s upcoming game against South Carolina-Upstate.

Jared Sullinger
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jared Sullinger

No one was interested in asking about the next opponent.

“I don’t know on Jared’s status,” Matta said before any reporter could ask the question that was on everyone’s mind, including Ohio State’s coach.

“I don’t have the answer now.”

What started as a slight limp following the Buckeyes 22-point win over Duke has slowly developed into a potentially season-altering back injury that has already cost Sullinger a pair of games.

He missed Ohio State’s loss at Kansas over the weekend, and there is still no indication whether he will be ready to return to the court Wednesday night in Columbus against USCU (7:30 p.m. ET, BTN).

“I’d like for him to play tomorrow night if he would feel up to it, but I honestly have no idea (if he’ll play),” Matta said Tuesday.

“Once he gets through a couple of (practices) we’ll probably have a better gauge at that point.”

Sullinger, who is averaging over 19 points and 10 rebounds per game this season, did not even warm up before the game at “Phog” Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, but Matta said he is coming along “slowly, but surely.”

He did more in Ohio State’s first shoot-around this week and Matta said Sullinger is now at a point where he can run, jump and shoot. Those sound like three of the most important factors in determining whether or not Sullinger can play Wednesday night, but back injuries can be a lot more complicated, especially when factoring in the length of the season and the importance of these early nonconference games.

“You have to factor in a lot of different things,” Matta said.

“First and foremost, Jared is still young. He’s a very competitive individual. Like I’ve said, I think winning the war is more important than winning the battle.”

Winning the war would mean a healthy Jared Sullinger down the stretch in Big Ten play and for the start of March Madness. At this point, there has to be some concern that Sullinger’s back may continue to bother him for the rest of the season, especially while he is taking a physical pounding that comes with the Big Ten style of play.

It may seem like Sullinger is nursing his wounds, but teammate Aaron Craft continues to see a noticeable difference in Ohio State’s preseason All-American with every day that goes by.

“It's definitely day-to-day,” said the sophomore from Findlay who also played AAU ball with Sullinger in high school.

“Every day he comes in, he looks more excited. He looks like he's moving around a lot better.”

Senior William Buford agreed that Sullinger’s injury looks more like a day-to-day issue than something that should concern Ohio State fans for the long haul, but the more time he misses the harder it is going to be to convince people he is going to be fine on the back end of this season.

In two games without him clogging up the paint, the Buckeyes have shot less than 40 percent from the floor. They were outrebounded in their 78-67 loss to the Jayhawks, but the more concerning issue was the lack of rhythm or flow to their offense.

They got 15 points from Deshaun Thomas in the first half and 17 from Buford in the second, which is why they were able to make it a 4-point game late in the game. They shot less than 39 percent from the floor and less than 30 percent from behind the arc.

“There’s a lot of things that I think we can do better, starting with passing,” Matta said.

“Some of the passes we threw in to our shooters were atrocious on Saturday. … Like I told the guys, I’m not buying the fact that because Jared’s not in there that we can’t make shots.”

The Buckeyes likely won’t have much difficulty in tonight’s game against a USC-Upstate team that has struggled on the glass and from behind the arc. The Spartans are shooting under 29 percent from long range this season, but Ohio State opens Big Ten play in two weeks.

They host Northwestern in the conference opener before traveling to Bloomington for a New Year’s Eve matchup with the Hoosiers, who are undefeated and ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2008.

Matta would like nothing more than to have Sullinger healthy and ready to go for the stretch run.

“It's the progression we're trying to take in terms of step by step,” he said.

“As opposed to running the full marathon, we're going to warm up with a 5K and then get to a 10K.”

 

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