Sullinger gets second shot at Robinson, KU
Thad Matta approached Jared Sullinger in a locker room at Allen Fieldhouse before then-No. 2 Ohio State played then-No. 13 Kansas. The news wasn't good. Neither was Sullinger's mood.
It was Dec. 10, the day of one of the season's best nonconference matchups. Buckeyes coaches had chosen to sit Sullinger for a second consecutive game because of back spasms.
"I want to put my players' best interest in mind," Matta said later that afternoon.
But the sophomore forward felt a sense of loss with his pain.
Before Sullinger's injury, the game between Kansas and Ohio State had been billed as a showdown between two of the nation's best frontcourt talents. Earlier, Sullinger had been named a preseason All-American – an honor befitting his potential as a 6-foot-9, 265-pound force expected to carry the Buckeyes in their attempt to improve upon two consecutive Sweet 16 exits. Meanwhile, Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson had emerged in the Jayhawks' first eight games as their main inside threat.
But the clash between Sullinger and Robinson in one of college basketball's most historic settings never happened. Matta and Sullinger spoke in the locker room before Kansas' eventual 11-point victory – a result that gave Ohio State its first defeat. Sullinger looked at his coach with regret.
"Man," Matta recalls Sullinger saying. "I would really like to play."
After all of March's turns, after two weeks and four games of pure survival, Sullinger will receive another chance at Kansas. On Saturday, the Buckeyes play the Jayhawks in the Final Four at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. He watched the first meeting between the teams from a bench in street clothes while Robinson scored a game-high 21 points to lead Kansas to its signature nonconference victory.
More than three months later, the National Player of the Year candidates will share the same court with their respective seasons and legacies at stake. Behind Sullinger, Ohio State will try to clinch its first national championship game appearance since 2007. Behind Robinson, Kansas will try to play for the title for the first time since 2008.
Both have the skill to cut down the nets Monday. Both have the skill to add a defining memory to their decorated college careers.
But after Saturday, only one will have the ability to say their championship dream continues.
"There were times when I thought I could have made an impact on the game," said Sullinger, referring to his absence in the Kansas loss. "The guys went out there, and they played very, very hard. It was a tough loss. But I thought with that loss at Kansas, it kind of helped our basketball team."
After that loss, Sullinger returned to help Ohio State earn at least 30 victories for the second consecutive year. His comeback included both lows (he scored just three points in a victory over South Carolina on Dec. 17) and highs (he scored 30 in a win over Purdue on March 9). He became the first repeat All-America selection in three seasons. He also was a major reason why Ohio State finished tied atop the Big Ten with Michigan and Michigan State.
Sullinger wanted to play in Lawrence. But looking back, he thinks the Buckeyes are stronger for facing the crazed Allen Fieldhouse crowd without him. That day, he saw junior forward Evan Ravenel and freshman center Amir Williams grow because of their baptism by fire – the two players combined for 11 points and eight rebounds. With adversity, the Buckeyes evolved.
"He's a winner," Matta said of Sullinger. "He's a great teammate. He wanted to be a part of (the game in Lawrence). … From that standpoint, I'm sure he was a little bit dejected. But by the same token, I hope it motivates him Saturday night."
Meanwhile, motivation won't be an issue for Robinson. After all, doubts have followed his team all season.
Remember, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts for Kansas. But Robinson led the Jayhawks to a surprise eighth consecutive Big 12 Conference regular season title, a year after he was little more than a top reserve.
Robinson's online biography calls him a "high-energy, solid rebounder who is a prototypical four man." He was that and more as he became one of the country's elite players.
He led his team with an average of 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. But his contribution went beyond numbers. With time, Robinson became the heart of the Jayhawks.
"Yeah, I'm excited," he said of facing Sullinger. "But at the same time it doesn't matter who I'm going against, because it's the Final Four. I don't care if it's a sixth-grader."
That response shows Robinson's approach hasn't changed much from the first Kansas-Ohio State game. That afternoon, he sat behind a table after the Jayhawks' victory and said the contest was bigger than any two players. He said it would have been fun for fans to watch him and Sullinger battle in the paint area. He said it would have been fun to be a part of such a bright spotlight.
But he said the game wasn't about that. It was about Kansas and Ohio State. It was about five players on each side executing to the best of their ability. And that day, the Jayhawks were simply better than the Buckeyes without Sullinger.
"This might as well be a whole new year since the last time we played them," Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "Jared didn't play, which is the biggest thing. … His presence was definitely missed in that game for his team. He's going to be there on Saturday. I think we're looking forward to that, and I know our bigs are looking forward to that challenge. Jared is an All-American and a really tough and good player. Our bigs are ready for that challenge."
Robinson is ready. So is Sullinger.
Both players have the talent to win it all. But Saturday, one season must end.