NEW ORLEANS — The pain on the faces of his teammates after Ohio State's Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky last March was one of the primary reasons Jared Sullinger decided to bypass NBA riches and unexpectedly return to school.
Sullinger saw many of the same despondent expressions Saturday night when he looked around the Ohio State locker room after the Buckeyes squandered a nine-point halftime lead in a 64-62 Final Four loss to Kansas.
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There was Aaron Craft lamenting the lane violation he committed with three seconds to go that dashed Ohio State's hopes of forcing overtime. There was Deshaun Thomas ruing the foul trouble that limited him to just 23 minutes. And even Sullinger himself wrapped a towel around his head and rested his chin in his hands, engulfed in thought after a 5 of 19 shooting night in the biggest game of his life.
"It's still tough just like last year, but we got further," Sullinger said. "We got to the point where we were one of the last four teams standings. Only the best team basketball teams in the country play here. We took a loss. It hurts. You look around and these guys are really, really hurt, and that hurts me."
Whereas the pain of last March's season-ending loss inspired Sullinger's declaration that he'd return to school, Saturday's poor second half inspired no such promises. The 6-foot-9 sophomore, once again projected as a top 10 pick, said he has yet to make up his mind what he will do.
"I honestly don't know," Sullinger said. "That's something I'm going to take up with coach (Thad Matta) and just talk it over with him and my family."
If Saturday was Sullinger's final college game, he didn't leave NBA scouts with the best impression.
The length and shot-blocking skills of Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey prevented Sullinger from getting many clean looks, as did constant double-teams from the Jayhawks guards every time he caught it in the post. Sullinger finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, but he wasn't efficient or productive in the second half as Kansas narrowed the gap and eventually overtook the Buckeyes.
Ohio State had hoped to force Withey out of the game because Thomas' perimeter skills seemed to require Kansas to play third big man Kevin Young more, but that plan failed because of Thomas' foul trouble. As a result, Withey was able to play 34 minutes and contribute seven blocked shots, eight rebounds and solid post defense.
"Deshaun only playing 23 minutes hurt us because they were able to sit Withey down there and double-team Sullinger," Matta said. "The game plan going in was we were going to have to spread them out and give him time to work, but also give Deshaun the opportunity to stretch the defense."
Sullinger didn't say much to his teammates in the locker room to give them a clue if there was any chance he'd defy logic and return to school again to chase a championship. He did say, however, that he has no regrets about returning to school this year after a season in which he averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds and led Ohio State within two games of a national championship.
Said Sullinger, "We made it to the Final Four with guys you create a bond with that can't be broken."
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