GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Evan Turner had prepared Jared Sullinger for what was to come at Ohio State.
He publicly said at the NBA draft the Buckeyes would have a Big Ten freshman of the year and even possibly a Big Ten player of the year. He didn’t hesitate to say that even without him -- last season’s national player of the year -- the Buckeyes could be a better team.
Privately, according to Sullinger, he was prepping OSU's highly touted forward on how to handle his stardom.
“He helped me manage everything,’’ said Sullinger, who noted he has known Turner for a while, even though he never played with him. “He told me about how to deal with the hype, the local celebrity stuff and to understand who I am and what I have to do to be successful in the game of basketball.’’
Sullinger said Turner’s words were direct: listen to coach Thad Matta.
“He’s been there, he’s coached in a national championship and had a whole bunch of NBA basketball players,’’ Sullinger said.
Turner knows of what he speaks.
The Buckeyes may just be better than a year ago because of Sullinger. And while he isn’t the defensively dominating presence that Greg Oden was in the run to the national title game in 2007, he may be a more reliable post scorer that gives the Buckeyes the necessary balance to compete for a title.
Sullinger was the dominant presence Tuesday in scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 boards in a 93-75 victory over Florida in Gainesville. Sullinger scored 16 of his points in the second half to turn what was a three-point halftime deficit into to a second-half rout.
This was just a snapshot, one game in mid-November, but it was quite clear that Ohio State has someone who can score in the post on a regular basis to offer balance. And it was painfully clear that Florida does not. And that could be a difference as to where these teams finish this spring.
“I’d like to say it’s comforting, but what I like is that our players know it too. They have an understanding that to have the outside game we have to throw it inside and that he’ll throw it back out," Matta said of throwing the ball into the post. "The beauty of his game is his unselfishness. Hopefully we can continue to build on that. We had great ball movement and great spacing.’’
Matta didn’t hesitate when asked about the difference between Sullinger and Oden, who was the top pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Oden wasn’t a polished offensive product. He was an intimidating defender. Sullinger is not.
“I’ve said he’s productive, he produces and he finishes,’’ Matta said. “Look at his field-goal percentage. He was 13-of-17. He shoots like that in practice.’’
Sullinger isn’t a completed project yet, but he has a more fundamentally strong game on the offensive end at this point in his career. The Buckeyes have had bigs like Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens since Oden, but neither can even come close to Sullinger’s game at this point or in the future, despite being first-round picks.
“When you’ve got someone like that it opens up everything, the penetration, the outside shots and that’s what our team likes to do with our guards,’’ said Ohio State fifth-year senior guard David Lighty, who played on the 2007 national runner-up. “We had this at times last year with Dallas [Lauderdale], but it was more on the defensive end. Sully has the skill on the offensive end to open everything up.’’
The Buckeyes have experienced guards around Sullinger with Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford, who are all streaky shooters. Having freshman Aaron Craft come off the bench as a gritty point guard who isn’t afraid to take it to the opponent helps the moxie off the bench. Craft is still finding his way and had five assists and three turnovers. But he has plenty of potential to settle down into the role of being a leader.
The Buckeyes were beaten badly on points in the paint (24-14) and on the backboard (19-8) in the first half. It was stunning result since OSU clearly held an advantage in that department. But Matta implored the Bucks at halftime that they had to throw the ball inside and if they did, they would likely get it back in return.
And they did, turning at least the points in the paint figure in their favor (40-36).
The Buckeyes barely got much out of fellow freshman forward Deshaun Thomas (two points in eight minutes), who has loads of potential scoring ability as well. But he wasn’t needed on Tuesday. He will be soon.
There is so much to like with this Ohio State squad because of Sullinger offering up the balance in the post. Having him inside as an equalizer to any other Big Ten team should surely benefit this team in the winter. Ohio State is clearly in the mix with Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota for the Big Ten title.
But the national championship talk shouldn't be quieted. Michigan State is in that discussion. Now Ohio State must be as well.
Matta said in the locker room prior to the game that he was eager to see how this team would respond in this environment. He said he knew they had a chance to be really good later in the season.
After this one, it's hard not to be giddy about this team’s potential if you’re Matta and the Buckeyes. Florida has to figure out how it can deal with a force inside or when it’s offense is too jumpshot-oriented (like in the second half). The Gators may be questioning just what is their identity now.
Ohio State has its answer. Get the ball to Sullinger and everything else will open up.