COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Ohio State standout Jared Sullinger blames himself for the fifth-ranked Buckeyes' most recent loss.
''There were times in the Illinois game where I just kind of took a break on the defensive end instead of the offensive end and it cost us,'' Sullinger said, referring to a 79-74 setback on Tuesday. ''Honestly, I was one of those people who played hard when they wanted to. I have to stop that.''
Sullinger promises to recommit himself and make up for that lapse when the Buckeyes host No. 7 Indiana in a big rematch on Sunday.
''Coach (Thad) Matta always talks about how we have another gear, where we can take our games to the next level,'' the 6-foot-9 All-American forward said. ''I guess our coaches, they feel like I'm the best player so they feel like if I take my effort and leadership to a whole other level, everybody else is going to follow me.''
There is no question that Ohio State's first option on offense and last line of defense is Sullinger. If he slacks off even a little, which is seldom the case, it resonates through the team.
So Sullinger - a playful, happy kid on and off the court - has taken steps to show he's tired of losing. This week he's become, if not the bad cop, at least more stern and workmanlike.
''I'm always out there laughing and having fun (in practice),'' forward Deshaun Thomas said. ''Seeing our best player taking it serious, it just motivates me to go hard. We all feed off of him. We look to him out there. He's a big target.''
Point guard Aaron Craft and Sullinger both spoke out after the Illini loss about the Buckeyes' lack of aggressiveness and unwillingness to help teammates.
Of course, all of this must seem like much ado about nothing to other teams. After all, Ohio State (15-3, 3-2) has won the last two Big Ten titles, is perennially among the top 10 teams in the rankings and is an annual threat to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
Still, three road losses in their last 10 games - Kansas, Indiana and Illinois - have clearly rankled the Buckeyes, who are not used to being pushed around, particularly in conference play.
''I haven't lost like this in I don't know how long,'' Sullinger said. ''So it's like every time I lose around the third or fourth game it's around the end of the season so I really didn't know how to handle it.''
The Buckeyes know they have to get better, particularly on Sunday against the Hoosiers (15-2, 3-2), who beat Ohio State 74-70 on New Year's Eve.
Adding to their concerns, shooting guard William Buford has been in a shooting slump and Thomas, due in large part to early foul trouble, had an awful game in the first meeting at Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers have some worries of their own. They are coming off a 77-74 home loss to Minnesota on Thursday night.
''Both teams will be coming in with an edge, both coming off tough losses this past week,'' Indiana guard Matt Roth said. ''Both teams will make adjustments based on the game two weeks ago.''
Indiana coach Tom Crean doesn't believe there's time in a hectic season to dwell on the previous game, or even the last meeting between teams.
''Every game is different whether you played each other two weeks ago or two months ago,'' he said.
If there's one thing that's clear in the Big Ten this year, it's that there are several good teams but a great one has yet to emerge. Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan State, Indiana and No. 13 Michigan all have had some big wins and deflating losses. Minnesota and Iowa have pulled off some stunning upsets.
So there are a lot of teams looking to build some momentum.
Matta was asked if his team was at a crossroads.
''I don't think I would call it a crossroads,'' he said. ''You don't ever want to lose a basketball game. With that said, we've got to continue to find ways to play better, to play more consistent. You view the Big Ten right now, you just look across the board and sort of scratch your head, like, there's a lot of us that might be in crossroads games five games into the Big Ten.''
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