Ohio State All-American forward Jared Sullinger still can’t forgive himself. And he still can’t help from wondering: What if he had not missed the Buckeyes’ game at Kansas?
Sullinger missed the then-No. 2 Buckeyes’ nationally televised showdown at KU on Dec. 10 because of back spasms, and he watched helplessly from the bench as the Jayhawks won 78-67 and handed Ohio State its first loss of the season.
With the two teams set to meet in a rematch in the Final Four on Saturday night, Sullinger is determined to show what Kansas missed seeing in December.
“There is extra motivation for me,” Sullinger, a powerful 6-foot-9, 265-pound sophomore said on Tuesday. “I felt like I let the team down. When that final buzzer went off and we got done shaking hands, I walked off the court like all the weight was on my shoulders.
“I felt like I could have helped the team overcome the 10-point leads … the times when we had it down to four points, and we had a turnover or didn’t score a basket. I felt like everything was my fault. I’ll take that as a little bit of motivation going into New Orleans and getting ready to play Kansas.”
Sullinger, who averaged 17.6 and 9.1 rebounds per game, had been ruled out of the Kansas game — the second of three starts he did not make — before the Buckeyes arrived at Allen Fieldhouse.
But when Sullinger saw the festive, pregame atmosphere, he asked coach Thad Matta to reconsider when the team was in the locker room.
“He got caught up in the euphoria…” Matta said. “I still don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that when we went out there … it was a unique, unique experience.
“He’s a winner, he’s a great teammate, and he wanted to be a part of it. That was our first loss of the season … from that standpoint, I’m sure he was a little bit dejected, but by the same token, hopefully it motivates him Saturday night.”
With Sullinger in street clothes, Kansas forward Thomas Robinson scored 21 points on seven-of-nine shooting, and collected seven rebounds.
“He’s a great basketball player … he’s been through a lot,” Sullinger said of Robinson’s dealing with the loss of his mother and two grandparents last year. “If anyone deserves this moment, it’s him. Last year he went through a big-time emotional situation, where I don’t think anybody could handle it better than the way he has handled everything. He’s a go-getter. He plays hard 100 percent of the time on the offensive and defensive ends.”
Despite losing, Sullinger believed the Buckeyes benefited from the experience. Junior Evan Ravenel, a transfer from Boston College, gained valuable experience in starting for Sullinger; and 6-11 freshman Amir Williams got some valuable playing time, which paid off in Big Ten games and as recently as in the Elite Eight win over Syracuse when he scored two points, blocked two shots and pulled down four rebounds in 9 minutes.
“There were times I thought I could have made an impact on the Kansas game,” Sullinger said. “The guys went out there and played very hard. It was a tough loss, but I thought that loss at Kansas kind of helped our team out … with Evan Ravenel having a big second half … Amir Williams against Syracuse … that’s where it all started with my not playing at Kansas with them playing in a high-impact game.”
Matta doesn’t believe there will be any carryover for either team when they meet again on Saturday night.
“They have made, as we have, the natural progression …” Matta said. “Everybody has gotten a little bit better, everybody has gotten a little bit tougher, everybody understands the system they’re playing better now.
“A lot like us, coach (Bill) Self has those guys rolling in the right direction. They appear to have great confidence and poise out there. Have we changed our offenses? No, we’re doing different things … (opponents) are maybe denying this a little bit more or whatever … but we are who we are in terms of who we were in December.”
Both Ohio State, 31-7, and Kansas, 31-6, have followed similar paths to the national semifinals. Both are No. 2 seeds, having knocked off favored No. 1s to return to the Final Four. Both were No. 1 seeds a year ago — Ohio State was the No. 1 overall seed — but failed to make it to the Final Four; Ohio State losing in the Sweet 16; Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Neither knew what to expect this season.
Kansas lost a wealth of talent, including three players to the NBA in the Morris twins and Josh Selby, while the Buckeyes lost three starters.
But Kansas is returning to the Final Four for the first time since winning the title in 2008, the Buckeyes are back for the first time since losing to Florida in the 2007 championship game.
“I didn’t know how this team was going to unfold,” Matta said. “You go into an offseason and try to find some definites about this team. I knew (guard) Aaron Craft was going to play great defense. I knew Jared was going to be able to score down in the block … William (Buford) was going to get his 14 points a game as he has his entire career, but from there, we felt good about some things, but we didn’t know for certain what they were going to be.
“The thing I saw with this team was they had the capability of being a really good basketball team. There was a stretch in November where we played good basketball and a stretch in December we played good basketball without Jared. We were looking for that consistency all the way through, and they finally hit their stride, thankfully, at the right time of the season.”