Bob Lutz: Jayhawks will take full credit for win over Buckeyes
LAWRENCE — Everyone who follows college basketball wanted to see Ohio State's Jared Sullinger go head-to-head with Kansas' Thomas Robinson on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse.
I'm a little surprised every other game scheduled for mid-afternoon wasn't canceled, so enticing was the matchup of two potential All-Americans with Adonis bodies and Superman strength.
So when it was announced an hour or so before the scheduled start that Sullinger, who is nursing a bad back, wouldn't be in uniform, everybody felt a little bummed.
Certainly, the Ohio State players and coaches felt it the most. But even KU fans, anticipating such a showdown between the 6-foot-10 Robinson and the 6-9 Sullinger, were grousing.
But if you're going to say Kansas' resulting 78-67 win over the second-ranked Buckeyes is tainted because of Sullinger's absence, you're going to get a fight from KU coach Bill Self.
"I don't think you put an asterisk with the win,'' Self said after his team's biggest victory of the season, one that took some of the sting away from losses to Kentucky and Duke. "Ohio State can certainly say, and rightfully so, that Jared didn't play. We know they're a much better team with him and we wanted him to play, no question. But even if he had been able to play, that didn't guarantee anything. And Ohio State is still a Top 10 team without him.''
This is a game the Jayhawks needed. And with Sullinger dressed in black jeans and sneakers on the Ohio State bench, it became a game they had to win.
Kansas led from start to finish. When the Buckeyes pulled close, KU sped ahead. It happened over and over.
Ohio State was gritty and the Buckeyes have more than Sullinger, for sure. They're not ranked No. 2 because they're a one-man team, and Self's assessment of OSU as a Top 10 team sans Sullinger is probably accurate.
Still, there's no doubt KU's day was made easier with the Ohio State big man on the bench. When Self and Ohio State coach Thad Matta shook hands before the game, Matta said he wished his counterpart an early Merry Christmas.
"Well,'' Self said, "there may have been a few more words in there. Some descriptive words for Christmas.''
Matta joked with reporters after the game that he tried to nudge Sullinger to play, given how big the game was and how the Buckeyes were trying to win for the ninth time without a loss.
In fact, he was showing the caution any coach would show in December, no matter the opponent.
Kansas' Robinson said he noticed Sullinger in street clothes when KU first came to the floor to warm up. After a few days of preparing himself for the biggest individual battle of his college career, he switched his focus.
"I was excited to go against him but what it all comes down to is Kansas vs. Ohio State,'' Robinson said. "I know it would have been fun for everybody to watch, but it's my team vs. their team."
Robinson fought some foul problems but finished with 21 points on seven-of-nine shooting from the field. He also made seven of eight free throws and had seven rebounds.
But it was some unsung Jayhawks who played the biggest roles, including 6-8 junior forward Kevin Young, a transfer from Loyola-Marymount.
Young scored 13 points in KU's season opener against Towson, but scored only 14 points in KU's next six games and didn't get off the bench against Duke in the Maui Classic.
Self just kept putting Young out there Saturday, although he admitted after the game he had seen nothing that good from him in practices, either.
Young, though, had his coming out party with 14 points and six-of-eight shooting. He made two three-pointers. Who knew he could do that? And defensively, he was effective against Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas in the second half, helping hold Thomas to four points after he scored 15 points in the first half.
If Kansas was worried about a letdown after learning Sullinger wouldn't play, a particularly effusive crowd took care of that. With deafening noise behind their backs, Kansas shot out to a 9-2 lead.
Would Kansas have won if Sullinger had played?
It's a legitimate question. Sullinger is a potential player of the year in college basketball. Matta can't snap his fingers and replace Sullinger's 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. Or what Sullinger brings that has nothing to do with statistics.
"It's a tremendous change (without him) because he's the best big man in the country; maybe the best player in the country,'' Ohio State senior forward William Buford said. "When you're missing out on that, you're going to have difficulties.''
Kansas need not put an asterisk by this win. But Ohio State is allowed to put a question mark by the loss.Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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