COLUMBUS: Jared Sullinger knew people didn’t believe him.
The Ohio State star vowed to return for his sophomore season after the Buckeyes were upset by Kentucky last March in the NCAA East Regional semifinals, ending the championship dream of a close-knit team that finished 34-3.
But few thought he could turn down the riches of the NBA, even with a lockout looming. Especially since one-and-done had been a fact of life in OSU coach Thad Matta’s seven years.
“I’m a man of my word,” Sullinger said Thursday.
But the young man who returned wearing Sullinger’s No. 0 seems to have remade himself, both physically and mentally.
When he arrived on campus from Columbus Northland High School, Sullinger weighed 292 pounds, according to assistant coach Jeff Boals. At OSU’s basketball media day on Thursday, Sullinger was down to 264 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame. His muscles are more defined. His cheeks appeared almost gaunt.
“He’s lost all his baby fat,” Boals said.
Sullinger might succumb to a Domino’s Pizza temptation occasionally, but Boals said Sullinger gave up his frequent trips to Five Guys for hamburgers.
Rather than eating three big meals a day, Sullinger said, he switched to five or six small ones to keep his metabolism high. He limited his splurges to about once a month. He said he took the Buckeyes’ off-season program more seriously.
“There were times I could have gotten out of the gym and I decided to stay and work on my game by myself,” Sullinger said.
His teammates have noticed the changes Sullinger has made.
“Fat boy? Have you seen how skinny he is?” joked senior William Buford.
“Since we’ve been around him all spring and summer, you don’t see the changes much until you look at pictures,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. “It’s been awesome to see the discipline and growth he’s had in a year.”
Some of that growth was prompted by the way the Buckeyes’ season ended. The top seed in the East Regional was ousted when Kentucky’s Brandon Knight made a 15-foot jumper with five seconds remaining.
That prompted Sullinger to tape a picture of Knight’s shot on his bathroom mirror.
“I look at it every day and think, ‘Could this have been different?’ ” Sullinger said. “It’s a motivating thing for me.
“The sense of urgency is there. I know every day is not promised. The way we lost to Kentucky, it really set me back. I realized how many practices I could have been going a step further but I didn’t. It makes me want to make up for those lost days.”
Matta has seen his program racked by early NBA entrants. Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook in 2007, Kosta Koufos in 2008, B.J. Mullens in 2009 and Evan Turner in 2010 all left OSU with eligibility remaining, all but Turner after their freshman year.
So when this season tips off Nov. 11 at home against Wright State, Matta will cherish what could be his final season with Sullinger.
“I hope people understand the commitment he made to this program and to this university by choosing to come back to college,” Matta said. “To me, that’s a tremendous statement. He’s the first freshman who stayed that could have gone. You hope that is cherished by our fans.”
Sullinger said he made up his mind that one year wouldn’t be enough at OSU long ago.
“The first time I stepped on campus, I knew I was coming back for another year,” Sullinger said. “This campus is something special, everything it provides for you, the fans, how much love they have for you, our coaches and this team, everything made me want to come back for another year.”
When he knew Sullinger was keeping his pledge, Matta couldn’t describe his reaction.
“Jubilation would be an understatement,” Matta said. “We’ve got a lot of questions about this team, unknowns, but you know you’ve got a guy who can do certain things.”
Earning first-team all-America honors last season, Sullinger averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds. Scoring 635 points in 37 games, he has a chance to become the seventh player in OSU history to reach 1,000 points in fewer than 60 games.
But to get those points, Sullinger took a pounding. Now with a slimmed-down Sullinger, Matta hopes to be able to move Sullinger around to take advantage of his passing ability on the perimeter and out of the post. But Matta isn’t sure that will alleviate the hack-a-thon.
Boals isn’t optimistic.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Boals said. “Last year he got pounded on and, to his credit, he just kept going. There might have been one time where he got a little frustrated, upset, and good old Satch and J.J. put him back in line.” Satch, Sullinger’s father, coached Jared at Northland High School. Jared’s brother J.J. played for Ohio State in 2004-06. Brother Julian played at Kent State.
Buford doesn’t expect fans to notice major differences from Sullinger on the court.
“He’s still dominant. Nothing will change. He’s just faster,” Buford said. “He’s starting to translate his game into the midrange and going off the dribble and stuff. Last year he was dominant on the blocks, so he didn’t have to.”
Sullinger said: “I’ll still post up, but it’s what type of move I’m going to make. It’s not always going to be a body-type move. It’s going to be more of a finesse move sometimes.”
Before last year’s NCAA Tournament, several CBS and Turner Broadcasting analysts said Sullinger’s ample rear end was his biggest weapon. “He’s got what we call a big base,” former Cavaliers guard and Phoenix Suns General Manager Steve Kerr observed.
Those who haven’t seen Sullinger’s new physique need not fear. The “base” is back as well.
“It’s still there,” Sullinger said, not the least bit offended by the question. “I didn’t lose my best friend.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.