Sullinger Ready To Lead Youthful Buckeyes

The Ohio State basketball team lost a lot of talent from the team that went 34-3 a year ago, but it didn't lose Jared Sullinger. Now as a sophomore he's ready to lead the team in its pursuit of another deep NCAA Tournament run.

Thad Matta admittedly wasn't sure if he'd get more than one year with Jared Sullinger, so that's likely why the Ohio State head coach has already turned to the dynamic big man as the one to lead the newest version of his basketball team.

Or maybe it was because Sullinger returns to the Buckeyes after turning his back on what would have been a lottery pick and life-changing money to take another shot at leading Ohio State to a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

"Coach Matta looks at me as a veteran and he always asks me to lead by example," said Sullinger, who put together an All American freshman season with the Buckeyes. "Just stepping into this season as a sophomore, he looks at me as a senior."

When looking for the ideal leader, Matta likely couldn't have come up with a better choice. Sullinger's presence on this year's squad already makes Ohio State a preseason top 10 team and one of the nation's favorites to advance to the Final Four.

"From day one he always looked at me as a leader," Sullinger said. "As soon as he said I was coming back, that's what he told me. He said I had to be a leader this year. Everyone expects this team to go far. We are just trying to take every day as we can and make the progression to be that team they want us to be."

Already known as one of the premier players in college basketball, Sullinger returns to Ohio State as the cornerstone of a Buckeyes team that posted an impressive 34-3 record a year ago before being prematurely knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

Sullinger has the imagine of Wildcats point guard Brandon Knight knocking down the game-winning jumper with only seconds left pasted on his mirror in his bathroom. He looks at it every morning before proceeding with his day.

"Every morning I wake up and I see it," he said. "That is my motivator for my day."

Advancing farther in the tournament this year has now become his chief goal. Better yet, it is an expectation for a passionate Ohio State fan base that has endured a less-than-satisfactory football season up to this point.

"The one thing I've learned in eight years at Ohio State is these people have great passion for this university," Matta said. "They want this university to do well. There's been a couple of bumps along the way. But our mindset doesn't change from the standpoint of, we're always going to try to put the best product out on the floor that we possibly can and try to attempt to do the things that we're supposed to to make the university proud."

Matta's team took a big step in accomplishing those expectations when Sullinger opted to come back and the sophomore is joined by versatile senior guard William Buford, one of the team's most prolific scorers, and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, who solidified himself as one of the top defenders in the conference in his freshman season a year ago.

But even with the returns of Sullinger, Buford, and Craft — not to mention hotshot sophomore scorer Deshaun Thomas — Matta doesn't quite think people appreciate how much the Buckeyes will have to overcome from losses sustained a year ago.

The result of those losses will be a completely different team than the one that enjoyed unparalleled success — including a long reign on top of the national polls — before making a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Gone is David Lighty, the player who has enjoyed the all-time most wins in Ohio State basketball history, and he's joined by three-point sharpshooter Jon Diebler and shot-blocking specialist Dallas Lauderdale.

Still, the expectations are soaring for this youthful Buckeyes squad.

"We understand that people want us to win, expect us to win. That's nothing but motivation for us," said Thomas, who will likely step into a starting role in his sophomore season. "We know we lost a lot of great talent, but look around here and you see a ton of talent still on this team. We're working toward being better than we were a year ago and I can say that it is my primary focus right now."

Buford returns as the team's only senior and the roster boasts only one upperclassman in Evan Ravenel, a redshirt junior transfer from Boston College who has yet to play a minute for the buckeyes.

Sure, Ohio State boasts Sullinger, who lost over 25 pounds and shed over six percentage points of body fat off of his frame, but freshmen Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, and Trey McDonald are all expected to have an impact in the post early in their careers.

Freshman Shannon Scott could find playing time at point guard and then of course there's the sophomore class that will make or break this team, consisting of Craft and Thomas in the starting lineup and Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon and Lenzelle Smith Jr. coming off the bench. Coaches admittedly don't quite know what to expect from the inexperienced group.

But there Sullinger was sitting at a podium in Value City Arena Thursday talking about the upcoming season in what he said felt like no time since being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament.

Now he's ready to do it all over again.

"We have the talent to do it, but now it is as simple as listening to Coach Matta," Sullinger said. "We're young, but he is going to be on our butts hard this year. It is going to be interesting to see how everything turns out by the time our first game comes around."

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