It was 2006, just after Ohio State had lost to Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, when J.J. Sullinger told his brother that if coach Thad Matta ever offered Jared a scholarship to play basketball for the Buckeyes, he should take it. “There’s no better coach than coach Matta,’’ J.J. said.
“That was enough,’’ said Sullinger’s father, Satch. “The first thing to come out of [J.J.’s] mouth was the love of the coaching staff, that was real powerful to hear.’’
It was a piece of advice that Jared Sullinger never forgot and has never regretted taking. “Hearing that from your brother after a tough loss and the season’s over, you take it into consideration,’’ Jared said.
He had already spent much of his preteen and teenage years hanging around the Buckeyes’ program, learning and observing. He was the little brother.
Now Jared Sullinger - described by Loyola-Maryland coach Jimmy Patsos as a “monster’’ earlier this week - leads second-seeded Ohio State into Boston against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16 Thursday, the round in which the Buckeyes were stunned last year as the overall No. 1 seed.
Sullinger is a combination of his brothers - J.J. and Julian - the youngest in a line of basketball and athletic tradition that stretches back generations. He was coached by his father at Northland High in Columbus, Ohio.
“He wasn’t afraid to work,’’ Satch Sullinger said. “I knew he was going to be real special. He was able to duplicate both of [his brothers’] games, inside and outside abilities.’’
This season has been more work for the sophomore, with the offense focused more through him than it was last season. There has been more pressure, more responsibility, as well as more moments of frustration with the referees’ whistle.
That has evident the last few weeks, during the Big Ten tournament and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“Jared has always been a guy that enjoys the big picture of what we’re trying to establish at Ohio State,’’ Matta said. “I think watching his play down the stretch, helping us when our backs were against the wall . . . I think he’s as primed and ready to go as he’s been all year.’’
Sullinger has yet to break out in the tournament, double teams relegating him to foul trouble and bench time in the first two games. But he is considered one of the best players in the country, an NBA lottery pick who is crucial to the Buckeyes’ hopes of getting to New Orleans for the Final Four.
“I haven’t seen him struggling that much,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He seems like he’s very smart, takes what people give him. He’s one of those players that has just a great touch. His ball goes in, sits up on the rim, always kind of rolls in.’’
It’s a combination of hard work, talent - and something else.
“I have one trick [in the paint], and that’s my butt,’’ Sullinger said. “As long as I’ve got my best friend on my back side, I’m good.’’
Despite spending the last year attempting to drop some of his baby fat - or at least turn it into muscle - in order to improve his quickness and stamina, Sullinger still is able to back opponents down around the basket.
“That is a lethal weapon when he uses it correctly,’’ said teammate Aaron Craft. “Usually he does, and unfortunately it’s at some of our expense in practice.’’
Still, they’re more than happy to have the forward in practice at all. After a freshman campaign in which Sullinger was projected to go high in the NBA draft, he returned to Ohio State and averaged 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. He didn’t want to enter the draft with a lockout looming. But it wasn’t just that. Ohio State means too much to him, is too much a part of who he is and how he has grown up for him to leave just yet.
“This program means a lot to me,’’ Sullinger said. “I love this program. I think that’s the biggest things [that made me] come back this year is this program and everything it’s done for me.’’
The plan was for him to lead the Buckeyes to the national title, to help erase the disappointment of 2011.
And while there might not be a junior season at Ohio State for Sullinger, it’s clear that the plan is for him to lead the team as far as possible in the tournament.
As Matta said, “He’s a winner. We’ll ride that down the stretch.’’Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.