COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Thad Matta knows how lucky he is.
Most major colleges wish they had a big guy like Jared Sullinger, someone who can score inside, draw fouls, rebound and is also a superlative passer.
“Every coach in the country would like to have a solid, low-post player,” Matta said on Monday.
The 6-foot-9 Sullinger is a nightmare to defend, as Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan well knows. Ryan had his Badgers guard Sullinger one-on-one on Saturday and Sullinger made him pay for that decision. He scored 24 points and had 10 rebounds to go with three steals in the third-ranked Buckeyes’ 58-52 win over the 19th-ranked Badgers.
Some fans might look at the fact that Ohio State (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten) hit just one 3-pointer and look at it as a negative. But that was more of a reflection of how effective Sullinger was in the paint.
A year ago, the Buckeyes won their second straight conference title and went 34-3. They had just about every weapon a team could want: 3-point specialist Jon Diebler, gritty freshman point guard Aaron Craft, swing guard David Lighty, sweet-shooting guard William Buford, defensive post man Dallas Lauderdale and Sullinger.
This year, after Diebler, Lighty and Lauderdale graduated, the Ohio State offense has made adjustments, although Sullinger is still the first option.
“The offense last year was more we could have just stood there and knocked down 3s,” Sullinger said. “This year we’re a little bit more athletic. We’re slashing a little bit more. Honestly, in this offense we kind of know what we’ve got to do to score. When we play inside-out or even driving the basketball, we’re very hard to guard.”
Sullinger is the biggest reason. Double down on him and he’ll quickly reverse the pass to an open teammate for a bucket. Play him with one defender and the physical sophomore will use his body for leverage inside and force fouls.
“I know that when you give him the ball, the whole defense is going to come and trap down on him,” said freshman point guard Shannon Scott, the son of former NBA and North Carolina star Charlie Scott. “I feel like when we get him the ball, it’s going to open it up for everybody else. We can play through him.”
Sullinger, who shares the current Big Ten player of the week honors, is averaging 17.4 points (fourth best in the conference) and 9.1 rebounds (second in Big Ten play).
He’ll clearly be a marked man when the Buckeyes, who have won their last five games to grab the top spot in the conference, host Purdue (15-8, 5-5) on Tuesday night. The Boilermakers have lost three of four, including a 78-61 loss at home against rival Indiana on Saturday.
On Monday, coach Matt Painter questioned his team’s effort in its most recent loss.
“It’s disappointing. As a coach, you would think in a game like that you would have the effort necessary. Maybe not the execution or making a shot, but you would think that you would have that type of a big-time effort,” he said. “We’re just not getting that across the board. We’ve got to do a better job of that. That’s where you start. If you can’t get a big-time effort in this league, you can do a lot of things well and it doesn’t matter.”
The Boilermakers are the last visiting team to win in Columbus. Ohio State has won its last 38 home games - the second-longest such streak in the nation - since dropping a 60-57 decision to Purdue on Feb. 17, 2010.
But Purdue, lacking an imposing presence down low to counteract Sullinger, will be hard pressed to pull off the upset.
Matta has been followed by a series of outstanding big men in his 12-year coaching career. It’s not a coincidence that every team he has coached has won at least 20 games.
At Xavier, he had national player of the year David West. Since he’s been at Ohio State, he’s had Terence Dials, Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos, Byron Mullens, Dallas Lauderdale and now Sullinger.
“We’ve been fortunate with big guys here,” he said with a grin.
For his part, Sullinger said the Buckeyes have shifted into another gear in recent weeks.
“Everyone knows what they have to do to make this basketball team go,” he said. “You rarely see anyone stepping outside their boundaries.”
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