COLUMBUS: The matchup of two of the nation’s best big men reduced one of the most venomous rivalries in college basketball to a warm-up act.
Across the Ohio River, dialysis patients are duking it out and some sports bars are designated Louisville- or Kentucky-only to prevent trouble among fans. But Ohio State takes on Kansas in tonight’s Final Four prime-time semifinal largely because of the showdown of All-America forwards Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson.
Ohio State’s Sullinger, a sophomore, stands 6-foot-9. Robinson, a junior, is 6-10. Both could be lottery picks in the June 28 NBA Draft; some analysts predict Robinson will be the second player selected behind Kentucky’s Anthony Davis.
Kansas presents more problems inside than just Robinson, thanks to the presence of 7-foot junior Jeff Withy. Ohio State’s other big man, 6-7 sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, is largely a scorer with only three career double-doubles to his credit.
There’s no doubt Sullinger and Robinson are the main attraction.
“He’s very physical, strong, quick, athletic. He’s a go-getter,” Sullinger said of Robinson on Tuesday. “He plays hard 100 percent of the time on the offensive and defensive end. It’s going to be a pretty physical matchup.”
That has to scare Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
Foul trouble sidelined Sullinger for most of the first half of the East Regional final against Syracuse. Although Sullinger has been disqualified from only one game this season, point guard Aaron Craft joked Tuesday of Sullinger, “He’s been a hack kind of throughout the year.”
Some have suggested Matta should start out with Thomas on Robinson to keep that hacking to a minimum.
Compounding the issue is that Sullinger tends to sulk over officials’ calls, especially as he struggles to adjust to unfamiliar refs in the NCAA Tournament.
“It can take away from your aggressiveness,” Sullinger conceded. “When you see refs you don’t know, the first four minutes you’re like, ‘Should I do this? Should I do that?’ Then you start thinking, then the next thing you know you’re missing shots you normally make, missing defensive assignments. You’ve just got to stay focused and play aggressive.”
Staying focused has also been a challenge for Sullinger, especially during a three-game stretch against Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin in February. He made 14-of-31 shots from the field and totaled 31 points in those three games, two of them losses.
But there are indications bad Sully has been banished. As he prepared for the Jayhawks, Sullinger remembered Ohio State’s first loss of the season on Dec. 10, when Kansas prevailed 78-67 with Sullinger sitting out his second consecutive game with back spasms. In historic Allen Fieldhouse, Robinson scored 21 points, including 10 in the final four minutes and Kansas made 58 percent of its shots.
“It’s extra motivation for me, to be totally honest with you,” Sullinger said. “I felt like I let the team down. When that final buzzer went off and we got done shaking hands, I walked off the court and I felt like all the weight was on my shoulders. I felt like I could have helped the team overcome the 10-point lead, the times we had it down to four and we’d have a turnover or didn’t score. I just felt like everything was my fault.
“I take that as a little bit of motivation going into New Orleans and getting ready to play Kansas.”
Matta never had a talk with Sullinger about that night, although he remembers Sullinger telling him, “Man, I’d really like to play,” in the pregame locker room.
“He just got caught up in the euphoria,” Matta said of an electric atmosphere he said he’s never seen before.
“He’s a winner. He’s a great teammate. That was our first loss of the season,” Matta said. “From that standpoint, I’m sure he was a little bit dejected. Hopefully it motivates him Saturday night.”
If that isn’t enough, Columbus native Sullinger can draw on the Buckeyes’ last appearance in the Final Four in 2007, when OSU fell to defending champion Florida in the title game.
“I remember Greg Oden going up for a dunk against Jeff Green,” Sullinger said of OSU’s semifinal victory over Georgetown when a flying dunk attempt by 7-foot Oden bounced wildly off the rim. “There’s a picture, you see everybody on the bench with their mouths wide open, in shock. I’m in my living room, I had two hands over my head like, ‘Oh, my God.’
“Against Florida, they were down by a little, all of a sudden Greg went into another person and single-handedly brought this team back. Florida was a little bit more talented. Coach Matta still holds onto that. Hopefully we can get past that.”
To get past it, Sullinger needs to channel his inner Oden. (The college one, that is.) With the likely end of his Ohio State career looming, Sullinger needs to be aggressive, physical, focused and determined as he stares down Robinson.
If the Buckeyes prevail, a disappointing December night in an old cathedral of college basketball will have served Sullinger well.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.