Big Men To Take Center Stage

In the biggest game of the season so far for No. 1 Ohio State, is is fitting that the two biggest players on the court will take center stage. Jared Sullinger (pictured) will get his first shot as Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, a senior leading the Big Ten in scoring.

The biggest matchup of the season for No. 1 Ohio State and No. 12 Purdue might come down to the two biggest players on the court. Down on the block, Buckeyes freshman Jared Sullinger will put his bruising 6-9, 280-pound frame up against Boilermakers senior JaJuan Johnson and his spindly 6-10, 221-pound body.

Even the coaches for the two players are excited to see what happens.

"I think it's great," Purdue head coach Matt Painter said of the matchup. "I think it's great for our league. Obviously both of those guys are about winning and trying to help their team get over the hump. Two different players. Two very productive players."

Sullinger has wasted no time asserting himself among the nation's top big men. As a freshman, his average of 17.6 points per game leads OSU and is sixth in the Big Ten while his 10.2 rebounds per game rank second in the conference. He gets his by bodying his opponent near the basket and getting to the free-throw line.

Johnson, meanwhile, has improved his statistics each year and is putting together a monster season as a senior. His average of 20.5 points per game leads the Big Ten and he has scored in double digits in every game this season. His points come both near the basket and near the three-point arc.

As OSU head coach Thad Matta put it, Johnson has come a long way from a skinny freshman.

"You look at his body and remember how skinny he was as a freshman and he's put the right type of muscle on," he said. "Driving to the basket, he is really a very complete player (now). It's great to see the natural progression that he's made during his time here."

While he has gained just 11 pounds since his arrival on the Purdue campus, Johnson has grown plenty from a confidence standpoint. That has never been truer than this season as he has become a more consistent performer for Matt Painter's team. After not breaching the 20-point mark as a freshman, Johnson got there six times as a sophomore and 11 times as a junior.

This season, he already has 11 20-point efforts through his team's first 20 games and enters the OSU contest on a streak of four consecutive games of scoring at least 20 points.

"He's not a guy that has been a leading scorer in the past," Painter said. "He doesn't have that experience of success with the ball going through him. He would score for us in the past but he wasn't getting the consistent touches that we make sure that we get him now. Now that confidence is the last piece for him. He believes that he can go out there and be productive on a nightly basis."

OSU senior forward David Lighty, who often guards bigger players in the paint but said he has never primarily been responsible for checking Johnson, said the plan is largely to try and force the big man away from the basket.

Even that, however, is not a guarantee for success. In a nail-biter Jan. 19 against Penn State, Johnson provided the final points in a 63-62 victory with a last-second shot. It came from about 18 feet from the basket.

"I would say (push him outside) just to make things as difficult as possible for them," Lighty said. "He's improved his outside game a lot. He makes difficult shots. When you've got a hand or two hands in his face and he's still hitting fade-away turnaround jumpers, what are you supposed to do about that?"

The Buckeyes will counter primarily with Sullinger, who has been named the Big Ten's player of the week four times this season and the freshman of the week nine of a possible 11 times. He has five games of 20 or more points and the top two individual scoring performances for a freshman in school history, reaching 40 and 30 points in games against IUPUI and South Carolina, respectively.

"Jared Sullinger is a load but also has great feet and is a guy who can hurt you in a lot of different ways," Painter said. "He scores in and out, rebounds the basketball (and is a) great passer. He has a passion for the game. He's a guy you can tell enjoys playing and wants do to anything he can to help his team win."

He has been tested by a number of different big men in his first season with the Buckeyes. Monday, Matta pointed out that he has opposed Florida's Vernon Macklin, Illinois' Mike Tisdale and the entire Florida State frontcourt and emerged the victor.

Matta said Johnson represents a combination of all of those players and added that Sullinger seemed especially dialed in while watching film of the Boilermakers.

"He asked a question (Sunday) night that blew my mind that he was listening to the film session," the coach said. "That's one of the big challenges for a freshman. He's a competitor. He wants to compete, he wants to win."

Neither coach offered much in their plans to defend the other team's big man, although Painter said his team has not utilized a hard and fast rule of doubling the post this season. Instead, each will be like the fans expected to pack Value City Arena on Tuesday night: waiting to see what will transpire on the court.

"You've got two great players going against each other in a game," Matta said. "I think there are similarities between the two but there are a lot of differences between the two. It should be very interesting to watch as the game unfolds."

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