Sullinger in charge for Buckeyes
Freshman Jared Sullinger dominated in Ohio State's win at No. 9 Florida
Sullinger has been destined for big things in a basketball-focused family
OSU coach Thad Matta likes the way Sullinger thinks the game through
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All his life, Jared Sullinger has been a boy among men. It began when he was a toddler rumbling in the hallway with his two older brothers. When Jared was in elementary school, his brothers took him to the playground to play basketball with their friends, who pounded him unmercifully. When he was in middle school, he participated in practices run by his father, Satch, the coach at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio. Whether it was attending Ohio State's basketball camp as a 10-year-old or competing in AAU basketball tournaments as a teenager, Sullinger always went up against older kids.
And yet, despite all that, Sullinger has consistently played like a man among boys. That was the case again Tuesday night at Florida's O'Connell Center. Now a 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman center at Ohio State, Sullinger dominated the paint in the second half, enabling the fourth-ranked Buckeyes to run away from the No. 9 Gators, 93-75. Sullinger had 16 of his 26 points after intermission, and overall he shot 13-for-17 from the floor and had a game-high 10 rebounds. He may have been one of the youngest players on the floor, but he was also the toughest, the strongest and the smartest. Not bad for an 18-year-old kid playing in his second college game.
The most impressive aspect of Sullinger's performance was just how unimpressed he was by it. After the game ended, Sullinger stood in a hallway and was asked if he was nervous before the game. "Oh, not at all," he replied with cheerful insouciance. "I've played a lot of games in my life, some really tough games in AAU and high school. Usually it was against players who were two grades older. Plus, my brothers threw me into the fire at a young age. All that prepared me to play at this level."
Sullinger is not an above-the-rim athlete. He gets his points mostly through effort and guile, using old-school tactics like angles, efficiency and footwork. During one timeout Tuesday night, he even suggested plays he thought the Buckeyes should run to exploit Florida's weaknesses. "He thinks the game, and his demeanor is off the charts," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "In some ways it's like coaching a 40-year-old man. In practice I'll get on him and he'll look at me like, 'OK. I had it coming.' "
Given the hoops-addled household where he grew up, Sulllinger had no choice but to grow up fast. His father, who coached at three different high schools and worked a three-year stint at Oberlin College, first taught Jared how to execute a drop step when he was 2 years old. At 3, Satch had Jared shooting from the foul line with proper form. When Jared was in seventh grade, his father told anyone who would listen that Jared was going to be the best of his three sons. Jared later said he wished his father hadn't said that, but he allowed that it taught him at an early age how to deal with pressure.
The education extended beyond the court as well. When Jared was a sophomore in high school, Satch benched him for a state tournament game because his grades had slipped. Northland lost the game, and Jared never forgot the lesson.
Jared's oldest brother, J.J., who is eight years his senior, began his college career at Arkansas before transferring to Ohio State. One day J.J. went up to Matta and said, "Coach, I'm not telling you how to do your job, but you need to offer my little brother a scholarship." Matta thought J.J. was referring to Julian, who was four years older than Jared and would eventually play for Kent State. But J.J. said he was talking about Jared.
"Fat Jared?" Matta asked.
"Yes," J.J. replied. "I just saw him get 28 rebounds in a 20-minute game."
By the time Jared was a sophomore at Northland High, everyone in the country was offering him a schoalrship, but it was clear he was never going to leave Columbus. As a junior, he led the Vikings to a state championship, and last spring he finished his high school career with a 94-3 record. Sullinger was just the fifth player to be given Ohio's Mr. Basketball award twice. He was also named a McDonald's All-American and awarded the Naismith trophy for national high school player of the year. (Satch was named the Naismith national coach of the year for leading Northland to the No. 1 ranking in USA Today before they lost in the state tournament.)
Since becoming a Buckeye, Sullinger has absorbed advice like a sponge. During summer pickup games with Ohio State alumni who have been playing professionally, Sullinger picked the brain of Terence Dials, the Big Ten's player of the year in 2006. "He said you have to have a move for your move for your move, if that makes sense," Sullinger said. "In other words, you have to have a counter move for every move you have. That's what I've been developing over the years."
Sullinger has likewise culled lots of wisdom from Ohio State's four seniors, especially 6-8 center Dallas Lauderdale, whom Jared battles in practice like he used to battle J.J. and Julian. "Honestly, they're just teachers," Sullinger said of the seniors. "When I get fouled and the refs don't call it, Dallas tells me, 'Keep your head. If they don't call it, make them call it.' "
Lots of college freshmen say they want advice. Sullinger is one of the few who is both eager to hear it and able to apply it. "I'm open ears when it comes to basketball," he said. "There are times when I fight it, even with my father. But at the end of the day, it really processed. If you want to play basketball, you have to be able to think."
Matta knows that players like Sullinger don't come around often, and when they do they usually don't grow up in a coach's backyard. "He's a special kid," Matta said. "The best part about him is he's a great teammate. He just wants to win." It looks like Ohio State will be doing plenty of that this season. The scariest part is that this man child still has a lot of growing up to do.