NEW ORLEANS - They both will be NBA lottery picks, if they choose to follow that route this summer. But before Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’s Thomas Robinson think about their career paths, they must deal with the present - and each other - Saturday night at the Superdome.
While the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry created most of the Final Four buzz, the second game of the doubleheader, Ohio State against Kansas, should also be interesting.
You have the Big 12 player of the year and a unanimous first-team All-American in the 6-foot-10-inch, 237-pound Robinson, not bad for a junior in his first year as a starter, and Sullinger, a 6-9, 280-pound sophomore who leads the Buckeyes in scoring (17.6) and rebounding (9.1) and was also selected a first-team All-American.
The chances of a head-to-head matchup are not great, since Deshaun Thomas is slated to guard Robinson, while Jeff Withey will be dealing with Sullinger.
“But we know at some point in the game, switches will be made,’’ said Thomas. “Jared might be on Robinson and I might be on Withey. But the majority of a time it’s going to be the matchup of Robinson and I. It’s going to be a great matchup. I’m trying to make Robinson uncomfortable.’’
That might not be easy, at least on the court. Off the court, Robinson has endured family tragedies that have tested him. And as he developed in small increments, some wondered if Robinson would ever maximize his potential.
Unlike with Sullinger, Robinson’s path has been littered with potholes, which required patience and poise. During a three-week period in December 2010 and January 2011, Robinson’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather died. A month later, Robinson tore the meniscus in his right knee.
Considering his role as a freshman and sophomore was to back up future lottery picks Cole Aldrich and Markieff and Marcus Morris, elevating himself to where he was runner-up to Kentucky’s Anthony Davis as national player of the year is a major accomplishment.
“I needed it for myself just to know that I was capable of doing what I put my mind to,’’ said Robinson. “Before the season, I wanted to take my team far and I wanted to have a great year.’’
Mission accomplished on both fronts, although Robinson made it clear there is more work to be done, with individual accomplishments being overshadowed by the team goals.
“Right now, it’s about me trying to get my team to a national championship,’’ said Robinson.
As for facing Sullinger, who didn’t play in the regular-season meeting between the teams (won by the host Jayhawks, 78-67), Robinson said, “He’s a good player. If you don’t come prepared, he could cause problems for you.’’
Sullinger countered with his assessment of Robinson.
“Great basketball player,’’ he said. “Plays hard, plays smart. In my eyes, college player of the year. I know some think different. But with his season, the way he took his team to the top, you’ve just got to give it to him. He deserves everything that’s coming his way with everything that happened to him. I mean, he’s a good guy.’’
Kansas coach Bill Self said, if anything, Robinson is underrated.
“I expected him to maybe have a shot at winning player of the year, I really did,’’ said Self. “If you’re the best player in our conference, you are going to be one of the better players around.
“The thing that amazes me from a production standpoint is how consistent he has been.’’
Sullinger, meanwhile, believes the Buckeyes are ready to win their first national championship in 52 years.
“I thought in practice here [Friday] we had it,’’ said Sullinger, who has had to deal with back and foot problems this season. “I thought we were focused. We weren’t having fun. We came here and competed as a team. As long as we compete and realize that this is a business trip and not a vacation, we will be fine.
“It’s one step closer to our dream. As long as we focus on that and realize that it is one step closer to our dream and take each possession, each second, each ball screen, do everything with a purpose and play hard, I think we have a good chance of winning the basketball game.’’
As far as winning two games? “It would mean a lot,’’ said Sullinger. “Our university has been waiting for a basketball team like this since 2007. As a Columbus kid, it would be pretty cool. I would have to do a lot more online shopping with the popularity I would get if we won it.’’
With overall No. 1 seed Kentucky in the mix, neither Kansas nor Ohio State is regarded as the favorite this weekend, but then again, North Carolina State wasn’t the choice in 1983 against Houston, which had won an above-the-rim battle with Louisville in the national semifinals.
The battle on Saturday night between Ohio State and Kansas could very well be determined by which marquee player performs best.