COLUMBUS: If the Ohio State Buckeyes win the national basketball title, members of the media should get championship rings.
Such a gift couldn’t be accepted these days in journalism, where any offering besides a free notebook might be considered an attempt to curry favorable coverage. But after the Buckeyes defeated Syracuse on Saturday, OSU sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger thanked the media for providing the motivation for an NCAA Tournament run that has led them to the Final Four.
Sullinger proudly elaborated at a press conference Tuesday at Value City Arena. The Buckeyes leave Columbus tonight for New Orleans, where they will face Kansas in Saturday night’s semifinals.
“After we won against Syracuse, we thanked you all for all the criticism you all gave us, for all the negative comments, ‘This basketball team’s not this, not that,’?” Sullinger said.
OSU players might not have been reading the Columbus Dispatch or other newspapers, or even looking at their web sites.
If they had, they might not have found the fuel they sought. Dispatch sports columnists know to tread lightly in their criticism of Ohio State, per the heavy-handed direction of ownership and upper management. During my nine years working there, it almost became a badge of honor to have an Ohio State column killed.
Rather than go to newspapers or the Internet, Sullinger said the Buckeyes fed off questions they faced in postgame press conferences. Those pointed queries might have been at their height in February, when the 31-7 Buckeyes lost three games — at home against Michigan State and Wisconsin and at Michigan.
“You all asked us certain questions and it kind of stuck with us and it kind of stuck with coach [Thad] Matta,” Sullinger said. “We used to go back into the locker room and tell those guys what we were asked or what we heard. I thought our second five and our starting five elevated our games. I think that’s awesome, it elevated our game.”
The premise seems ridiculous on many fronts, first and foremost that a basketball team with as much talent as the Buckeyes needed to create a chip on its shoulder to succeed.
Then there’s the notion they were being pummeled in an OSU-friendly media market. Some of the criticism was coming from employees of fan web sites who aren’t known for their objectivity. They couldn’t hide their rising anxiety that the Buckeyes were underachieving.
Granted, expectations might have been too high after the Buckeyes lost Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale off a 34-3 team ousted by Kentucky last year in the Sweet 16. Matta’s current starting lineup includes four sophomores and senior William Buford. They needed time to jell.
But the Buckeyes endured no serious injuries aside from Sullinger’s back spasms that forced him to sit out two games, including the team’s first loss at Kansas.
Louisville, which faces Kentucky in the other semifinal, lost Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles to season-ending injuries and McDonald’s All-American Wayne Blackshear was plagued by right shoulder problems. During a Monday NCAA conference call, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said at one point he was practicing this season with three players in helmets so they wouldn’t suffer another concussion.
During his sophomore season in 2010-11, Kansas All-American forward Thomas Robinson lost his mother, grandmother and grandfather in a three-week period.
When I think of facing adversity, those are the kinds of things that come to mind. Not facing someone in a postgame news conference delicately asking Buford why he shot 2-for-12 against Michigan State.
After the Syracuse game, Sullinger almost seemed to flaunt his theme of the media didn’t believe in us. That’s not true; some believe too much.
Whoever was asking the questions the Buckeyes didn’t like, it seems like a poor excuse for acceptable motivation. Matta might not like it, but he hesitated to say so Tuesday.
“Um … I’m trying to put that all together,” Matta said, also pausing before he answered. “I want our guys to play their best basketball. How they get to where they need to get, I don’t care.
“When you win you try to analyze what happened along the way to make us play this way. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer, for not only this team but for any team. They finally hit their stride at the right time of the season.”
That last sound bite, should it have come from Sullinger’s lips, wouldn’t have made the evening news. If Sullinger is trying to sound catchy and needs media scapegoats to rev him up for two more games, there are Ohioans willing to serve.
FYI, Sully, my ring size is 6›.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/blogs/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.