LAWRENCE — Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is an All-American, the leading candidate for national player of the year and a future NBA lottery pick.
Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor is a preseason Big 12 honorable-mention pick, the most enigmatic player of the Bill Self era and an easy target for a fan base that lives and dies with every move.
Before the Jayhawks' 78-67 victory over the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, both players faced painful injuries, and both had a decision to make about whether or not to join their teams in battle.
Sullinger, the monstrous 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, sat out last Saturday's game with back spasms and did not practice all week. Ohio State's training staff evaluated him Saturday morning but did not feel confident enough to clear him for action.
"I'm never going to jeopardize one of my players' futures," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
For the second-ranked Buckeyes, who have legitimate national-championship aspirations, Sullinger is a rare commodity who must be protected. And Ohio State, which has already beaten Florida and Duke, did not need to beat Kansas to accomplish all of its goals this season.
When the news made it to the KU locker room that Sullinger was not going to play, there was disappointment and disbelief. It's very possible they couldn't believe it because they looked across the room at Taylor, the sleek and fast senior point guard with a bum knee who was sure as heck going to take on the Buckeyes.
At Monday's practice, Taylor sprained his medial collateral ligament and tore the meniscus in his right knee. He played through the injury on Tuesday night against Long Beach State, and KU considered the option of him having surgery Wednesday. Taylor wouldn't even consider that.
"I wasn't missing this game," Taylor said. "No discussion at all."
Taylor's bullheaded mentality goes back to the offseason, when he circled three games on the schedule: Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, Duke at the Maui Invitational and Ohio State. The Jayhawks had struck out on their first two opportunities for a signature victory, giving this one the feel of a must-win.
"That's the game we needed," KU guard Elijah Johnson said. "Nobody comes into the fieldhouse and just beats us. It was kind of set up, if you ask me. We just had to go through with the plan."
That plan included Taylor, whether Kansas fans liked it or not. Taylor entered the game with 29 assists and 32 turnovers, but he was going to play hurt, and Sullinger was not.
The Jayhawks, buoyed by a raucous 16,300 fans in Allen, attacked the Buckeyes the same way they would have if Sullinger were in the game. KU jumped out to a 9-2 lead on a three-pointer by Johnson, who had been cold from deep in recent weeks.
Taylor drew the challenge of playing against Ohio State defensive stopper Aaron Craft with one good knee and succeeded in grabbing control of the game. Taylor had eight first-half assists, and KU took a 35-29 lead to the half.
In the second half, when the Buckeyes cut KU's lead to three early in the half, the Jayhawks quickly stretched it to 10. When Ohio State cut it to four later, KU answered and pushed it back to 10.
By the end, there were plenty of standout performances for the Jayhawks, now 7-2. Thomas Robinson scored 10 points in a row in the final minutes, finishing with 21 points and seven rebounds. Johnson made five of seven threes for 15 points. Kevin Young came off the bench for 24 minutes, scoring 14 points and grabbing four boards.
But this day was about Taylor proving a point about what it means to be a senior leader. He had seven turnovers, but Taylor made them easier to forget with a career-high 13 assists — tied for fifth in Kansas history in a single game.
"I can get on Ty, because he will turn it over every now and then," Self said, "but where would we be without him? We don't win tonight unless he plays. I think everyone should appreciate how bad he wanted to be out there. He never once complained, never once said he was hurt."
Taylor emerged from the KU locker room with a smile. He will have surgery today and possibly miss a handful of games, but he helped his team win the game he wanted most.
"They didn't have their best player, but we can't control that," Taylor said. "We're going to take it for what it is. We beat the No. 2 team in the country today."