<
>

A battle of Big Ten big men in Columbus

Jared Sullinger, left, and JaJuan Johnson will square off Tuesday night in Columbus. Icon SMI

The pregame billing will, understandably, tab the Ohio State-Purdue game as A Battle of The Game’s Best Big Men (insert thunder clapping and really cool announcer voice here).

Jared Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson are arguably the two most productive big men in the country and they are the main reasons the Buckeyes and Boilermakers have enjoyed the success they’ve had this season.

But this isn’t exactly Russell versus Chamberlain.

It’s not even Oden versus Hibbert.

Sullinger and Johnson may occupy the same place on the court, but that is about where the similarities between the two begin and end.

“From a standpoint that you’ve got two great players going against each other in a game like this, it’s great for our league,’’ Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I understand why people talk about it like they do, but there are a lot of differences between these two. It should be interesting as it unfolds.’’

Sullinger is a prodigy, a man-child who looks and plays an awful lot older than 18.

Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes may have stolen the preseason hype machine, but it was Sullinger who was named Naismith player of the year in high school. The fact that he’s averaging 17.9 points and 10 boards isn’t so much a surprise as it is just a matter of fulfilling expectations.

“His body and his mind were ahead,’’ Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said of Sullinger. “You could tell that in high school. You knew he was definitely ready to play at this level.’’

Johnson, meantime, was a top-50 player out of high school who arrived on the Purdue campus minus the bells and whistles that accompany top-five players.

A solid and reliable scorer through his junior year, Johnson was in fact named a preseason All-American, but very few saw this -- 20.5 points per game, 7.9 rebounds -- coming for his senior season. But it couldn’t have come at a better time after teammate Robbie Hummel re-injured his knee and was lost for the season on the first full day of practice in October.

“He’s not a guy who has been a leading scorer in the past, so he doesn’t have the experience of success when the ball is going through him,’’ Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He could always score, but he wasn’t getting the consistent touches that we make sure we get him. It’s that confidence that has been the last piece for him. He believes he can be productive every night.’’

It is how Johnson is productive, though, that really separates him from Sullinger.

Sullinger is, and I mean this in the most flattering sense, a load. He may have the lowest center of gravity this side of Earth’s core. If he can’t get around you, he can and will barrel through you, a power player in the true sense of the word.

Johnson is more finesse, more apt to turn away from the basket and sink a jump shot than deliver a body blow underneath. He’s also much more of a threat away from the basket and even on the perimeter -- he’s hit seven 3-pointers to one for Sullinger.

“He can trail in transition, catch and shoot a 17- or 18-foot jump shot,’’ said Penn State coach Ed DeChellis, who watched Johnson burn the Nittany Lions for 25 points, including the game-winner with three seconds to play last week. “Sometimes he can be even harder to guard because he’s such a long guy.’’

So the question is: In the Battle of the Best Big Men in the Country, whose style wins out?

No one on the Big Ten coaches teleconference on Monday morning was terribly interested in predictions, but most everyone agrees that The Battle of the Best Big Men in the Country, while something of a misnomer, will still be awfully fun to watch.

“It’s going to be a great game,’’ Ryan said. “Ohio State with Sullinger and Purdue without Johnson? It’s not even close.’’