It’s not one thing that’s been bothering Jared Sullinger, who admitted Tuesday that he hasn’t been playing his normal brand of basketball. It is the sum of multiple small things that has had the sophomore All-American distracted.
And that could turn into one big problem for the No. 10 Ohio State basketball. Sullinger acknowledged that while offering an explanation for why he’s been playing noticeably different.
“It is just the little stuff,” Sullinger said. “It is just me letting the refs get to me, or letting everything on the outside get to me and letting it creep in. I was focusing on other stuff besides the basketball team and what this team needs me to do to win basketball games.”
That may not be the only factor that has caused the Buckeyes (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten) to lose three of their last five games while slipping out of the race for the Big Ten Championship, but head coach Thad Matta most certainly knows the impact of not having Sullinger completely focused.
“I don’t know,” Matta replied when asked about his big man’s focus following the team’s 63-60 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday. “He was battling a cold, but he’s played with a lot worse than that. I know this: When Jared’s playing his best basketball, he’s engaged and into it.”
If the team’s most recent issues rest with Sullinger, those problems have surfaced in each of the team’s last two home games. One the Buckeyes won, the other Ohio State lost.
Sullinger had nine points and six rebounds and fouled out in an 83-67 win over Illinois on Feb. 21, but hot shooting from his teammates overshadowed his performance. Against the Badgers, the sophomore All-American had only eight points and six rebounds.
Perhaps Sullinger has had a hard time adjusting to the way opposing teams have started defending him, as they’ve been promoting extra contact before he touches the ball to make gaining inside positioning a bigger battle.
But it’s a two-way street. The Buckeyes have to find more ways to get Sullinger the ball in the post, while the sophomore has to work even harder to gain extra room in the paint before getting the ball.
There’s an even bigger issue that Sullinger said has been bothering since the beginning of Big Ten play – focusing on the uncertainty of how the officials are going to call the game.
“Honestly, mentally, I really couldn’t tell you what’s going on,” Sullinger said. “I am always thinking about how I can play. Is the ref going to call this foul, or is the ref going to call that foul, so I am constantly worried about the refs instead of worrying about how I am supposed to play.”
Matta said he had a personal conversation with Sullinger after Ohio State lost to Wisconsin, a blunder that all but removed the Buckeyes from contention for at least a share of their third consecutive Big Ten crown.
Though Matta wouldn’t divulge the exact details of the talk he had with his star player, the head coach said he did reiterate to Sullinger the importance he has on the program.
“He told me just to play my game,” Sullinger said. “At the end of the day, he told me this team goes as I go and just to play my game. As long as I play and show emotion and play with energy, this team should be where we were at when we were beating teams by 15-plus.”
Assistant coach Jeff Boals also felt the need to approach Sullinger yesterday. He illustrated to the big man how much his focus on the officials has had an impact on his aggressiveness. The problem stems all the way back to the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener against Wisconsin on Dec. 28.
“He said that I haven’t been playing the same since (the Northwestern game),” Sullinger said. “It wasn’t as physical. I am just trying not to foul instead of playing defense or on the offensive end not being as physical as I used to by posting up because I am scared of what the refs are going to call. I just played timid.”
Sullinger said he’s turned to his father and former high school coach Satch Sullinger for guidance. The elder Sullinger offered this time of frustration as an opportunity to grow.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Sullinger said. “A thing my father told me – all great basketball players go through something (like) what I went through. The difference between great basketball players and average basketball players is their turning point. It is something they realize and it is a hard-fought lesson to understand to keep pushing through it.”
Perhaps the best sign for Buckeye fans is that Sullinger spoke in past tense, referring to his problem as something of the past. Sullinger has since reaffirmed his commitment to the team and said he plans to get back to the player he was at the beginning of the year.
And Sullinger says he knows what he can lead his team to in his sophomore season.
“It been very tough – I am not used to losing,” Sullinger said. “I don’t accept losing. It’s not part of my culture and it is not a part of my family. It has been hard, but we have to understand we have life. We still have a lot of basketball to play if we want to play it. We have a chance to do something big.
“We may not win the Big Ten, but now we’re playing for something bigger.”