Sometimes there are articles I look forward to writing. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. I had planned to share the excitement of senior day, discuss William Buford’s great career and summarize an exciting Buckeye victory against Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers. Today I will share my observations on Jared Sullinger’s lack of effectiveness over the past few weeks and a void in team leadership that we desperately need him to fill after losing our third game in five attempts.
Much of the criticism has fallen on the shoulders of senior Buford for his tendency to take bad shots, force passes, an inability at times to knock down the open jumper and overall lack of senior leadership. While the criticism is fair, he is not the only reason this team continues to struggle. As a team, the Buckeyes are suffering from poor shot selection, missed free throws, lazy defense and too many turnovers.
Yesterday’s loss to Wisconsin before a shocked and disappointed 18,809 in the Schottenstein Center was far and away Sullinger’s worst performance of the season. Playing in 33 of the 40 minutes (season average of 30), Sullinger had 8 points (season average of 17), 6 rebounds (season average of 9) and was 0-3 from the free throw line (season average of 74%). More alarming than the statistics was Sullinger’s apparent lack of effort, inability to hustle up and down the court and continued apparent frustration when events on the court were not going his way. On the defensive end, Sullinger allowed Wisconsin center Jared Berggren to score 18 points, including the final 5 points of regulation. Of the two “Jared’s” on the court, Sullinger, the consensus future NBA lottery pick, was on the losing end in more ways than just the scoreboard.
Sullinger is either hurt or given up on the team. I honestly, don't know which is true, but there is a problem and both are devastating for this team's chances to win the B1G or NCAA tournaments. I have always been a huge Sullinger fan and have followed him closely since his days in high school at Columbus Northland and of course the past two seasons with the Buckeyes. I’ve also been fortunate enough to watch almost every Buckeye home game where you get a perspective on a particular player’s performance in a way television doesn’t provide. He is not the same player. Quite simply, Sullinger looks to be extremely uncomfortable and laboring up and down the court. He appears to lack any explosion in leaping ability and physical aggressiveness. Sure, he has moments that make you feel all is well but for the most part, he appears to be in some amount of pain. The opposition continues to beat on him physically and I have to wonder if that has taken a toll both physically and mentally.
Back in early December, Satch Sullinger (Jared’s father and high school coach) told WBNS 10TV the initial injury report of back spasms that sidelined Sullinger for a fewgames, including the away game at Kansas, may be linked to plantar fasciitis, which is an inflammation in the bottom of the foot. It may be Sullinger is attempting to play though the pain and if true, he's to be commended for his commitment and toughness. You also have to question Matta for pushing him with too many minutes and continuing to design an offensive scheme that forces the opposition to physically abuse him as their only means of defense. If he’s healthy, the question must be asked, has he given up on his coach and teammates since he lacks the determination, focus and hunger we grew to admire.
My observation is that he is going through the motions and not playing with the intensity and passion we’ve seen at other points in his career. Matta has an entire offense that is built around Sullinger who is either able to get favorable matchups down low or create opportunities on the perimeter when teams collapse down to defend. When Sullinger is not willing (attitude) or able (injury) to step up and assume the main role on this offense, we will continue to see an off balance attack where players are shooting when they should be passing; and passing when they should be shooting. This is causing missed shots, turnovers and frustration for the entire team. We can’t go into tournament play or the final two games of the regular season without making serious changes to our offensive game plan if either of the conditions is true.
Matta, who is almost never critical and has a reputation for defending his players in the media, said of Sullinger after the game, “He was battling a cold, but he’s played with a lot worse than that. I know this, when Jared is playing his best basketball, he’s engaged and into it.” The last part of the quote is the most telling and Sullinger’s lackadaisical performance has obviously not gone unnoticed by his coach with his reference to being, “engaged and into it.” Those are tough words for Matta to use in public against one of his players.
In addition, Thad threw the team out of practice the day before the Wisconsin game by saying, “They weren’t ready to practice, and this team has shown that we play like we practice.”
Matta wasn’t referring to the entire team but rather this upperclassmen by adding, “My freshmen always come to practice. They do a great job.”
As Ohio State called time out down by two in the final 30 seconds of the game, I was confident a high percentage play to Sullinger down low, the "bread and butter" play for this team all season, would be the call. Obviously, I was wrong. Matta called a play designed to let DeShaun Thomas take a shot at the game winner, which reinforces my opinion that Matta has perhaps lost confidence in Sullinger as well.
We will not get the leadership we expect from anyone on this team other than Sullinger. His leadership is needed on the court as a player and in the locker room as a leader. He is a charismatic young man and obviously an exceptional basketball player. The players on this team will follow him. So, the question we need to ask: Is Jared Sullinger physically and mentally capable of taking on the leadership role for this 2011-2012 Buckeye team?
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