Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

For Jared Sullinger, another taste of glory at Ohio State was too much to pass up

NEW ORLEANS

Jared Sullinger is a star. Currently, he is on a big stage. He is one step away from validation, two away from vindication.

How much would you pay for that?

His is the face of Ohio State basketball. The hope, too. He is an All-American, again. He is a force, still.

And what's the price tag on that?

How much for another year? How much for putting the NBA on hold? How much for spring afternoons on campus for college games or big games against the Big Ten or a run through the NCAA Tournament? How much for a trip to the Final Four?

In a way, Sullinger got off cheap. It only cost him, oh, $5 million or so.

The sophomore could be rich by now, you know. He could be in the NBA, with Cleveland, maybe Toronto, where the money would be good and the expectations would be kinder. Most analysts seem to agree that if Sullinger had entered last year's NBA draft, he would have been a top-five pick, which pretty much turns a guy's life into parties and parades. Given the risk of injury, who says no to that?

Sullinger, for one.

"I wanted to make a statement that not everyone is using college basketball as a pit stop to go to the next level," Sullinger said Friday. "There is more than money and endorsements. There's championships that you have to win at every level. I've won a championship all the way from elementary (school) to now. I pride myself on winning. That's why I came back."

And here he is. After uneven moments, after unrealistic expectations, after constant criticism, after good moments and bad, Sullinger and his Buckeyes still have a chance to cut another set of nets.

Financially, there will be some who will always question Sullinger's decision. Who walks away from millions? But he wouldn't have the huge Mardi Gras beads around his neck. He wouldn't have been able to reach over and tickle the back of teammate William Buford's neck during an interview. He wouldn't have … this.

"It's helped him enjoy one of the greatest times of his life," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "College is college. It's fun. There's not a person in this room who wouldn't beg to go back to college.

"I think he's put a stamp on this program. He's going to be known as one of the all-time greatest players to wear the scarlet and gray."

For Ohio State to win, Sullinger needs to be great. More to the point, he has to be the best player on the floor against Kansas today, then against either Kentucky or Louisville on Monday night.

That's a lot to ask, because Kansas has Thomas Robinson, who Sullinger says should be the college player of the year, and Kentucky has Anthony Davis, who is the college player of the year.

For Sullinger, those have always been the expectations. As good as he has been for the Buckeyes, there are those who thought the 20-year-old from Columbus should've been better.

"I'm used to it," Sullinger said. "When you have your father telling you at an early age that you were going to be the best, and people doubt you, it's just more motivation to become who you want to become and prove everyone wrong.

"I could care less what people say. If you look at the attention I've gotten this year compared to last year, it's two different things. Last year, we had a knockdown shooter in Jon Diebler, which meant I didn't get doubled as much. It's two different dynamics. I'm living my life. If their life is dissecting me, then by all means, keep living."

At best, it has been an uneven year for Sullinger. He had back problems in December — he missed the game when Ohio State lost by 11 to Kansas — and foot problems in January. The officiating frustrated him.

Suddenly, the world seemed to fall out of love with Sullinger. Critics began to wonder if he could jump enough to play inside, if he could handle the ball well enough to play on the wing, once he got to the NBA. Instead of talking top five, the talk was about top 10. Maybe.

Ah, but have you watched Sullinger lately? In the NCAA Tournament he has had 18 points against Gonzaga, 23 against Cincinnati, 19 against Syracuse. Finally, he is the player college basketball expected him to be all along.

"I really appreciate when he's in a groove on the defensive end of the floor," teammate Aaron Craft said. "But that doesn't happen too often. So I really cherish those moments."

Craft grinned.

"I'm just kidding. He's done a great job. I think the best times when he's in a groove is when you're not noticing. The end of the game you're like, 'Wow, when did he score 26 points?' That's happened the last few games."

For Sullinger, the money can wait. The NBA, too. There is plenty of time for all of that. He has a decade to make a lot of money.

On the other hand, they are giving away a trophy on Monday night.

How much do you think guys in the NBA would pay to win that?

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