Sullinger Takes Ownership, Ready To Lead

The No. 5 Ohio State basketball team wasn't supposed to have hard times this season but has already lost twice in five Big Ten games. Now its star player, Jared Sullinger, has taken accountability for things that have gone wrong and is now energized to lead the team back to winning.

Aaron Craft's comments after Ohio State's Tuesday night loss at Illinois are enough to suggest more went into the latest Buckeye defeat than Illini guard Brandon Paul's dominant 43-point scoring barrage.

Of course Paul's game – which was the third-highest individual point total in school history – was a large part of it, but the obviously irritated Craft didn't beat around the bush when admitting the Buckeyes don't always play hard.

Taken at face value Craft's remarks were general statements about the team. Sophomore big man Jared Sullinger, the unquestionable leader for the Big Ten-favorite Buckeyes, took them a different way.

"Actually, he was kind of singling out me," Sullinger said. "There were times in the Illinois game where I kind of took a break on the defensive end and it cost us. Honestly, I was one of those people that played hard when they wanted to and honestly I have to stop that. That Illinois loss I kind of blame myself."

Though Craft's blunt answers to poignant postgame questions weren't designed to publicly point fingers at the All-America big man, it was yet another wake-up call for Sullinger to help guide Ohio State through a tough time in the season.

Craft didn't find the need to address Sullinger about what he said as the team boarded the plane and traveled back to Columbus. In fact, Craft let his statements speak for themselves until approaching Sullinger before practice Thursday.

"Honestly, we got on the plane and everybody was to themselves and thought about the game," Sullinger said. "Craft said something to me about it and it wasn't anything negative, it was like, ‘Come on big fella, let's go.' I understood exactly what he was trying to say."

Ohio State (15-3, 3-2 Big Ten) has already dropped two road contests in five conference games and currently sits in the middle of the league standings, a far cry from what was expected for this team before the commencement of the season.

A year ago the Buckeyes lost three games all season – including its season-ending loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 – so the recent struggles the team is facing is incredible unfamiliar for Sullinger.

"I haven't lost like this in I don't know how long," Sullinger said. "Every time I lose around the third or fourth game it is like the end of the season so I didn't really know how to handle (the Illinois loss)."

A few hours to let the Illinois loss sink and – and maybe a little help from Craft – and Sullinger found what he needed to do. It starts and ends with himself and his responsibility to the team to be a leader.

Now taking a break from social media, namely Twitter after receiving a multitude of negative comments from fans, Sullinger said he has determined himself to stay focused on only the things that matter.

"I had some nasty remarks on Twitter to the point where I was going to take my frustration out on something else," he said. "I am back to having tunnel vision and trying to stay away from negativity that people are saying."

Ohio State coach Thad Matta has again turned to Sullinger to be the entity that helps the Buckeyes transpire through tough times most thought would be non-existent this season.

Sullinger has averaged 17.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game thus far this season, yet again putting him in the conversation for college basketball's most elite player, but Matta is looking for something more that doesn't necessarily translate into the box score.

"I think (talking to Sullinger about leadership) is something that probably transpires daily, just through talking and coaching and the film work that we do," Matta said. "We've been on him to do what he needs to do to play his best basketball. I think he's playing well, but we jut want him to be a little more, I don't know if it is vocal, but I think a lot of guys look to him."

Publically taking blame for a crucial loss may be a good start if the film reveals Sullinger taking plays off on defense. After all, there's a delicate balance with leadership which could extend in the negative if the team's most promising player admittedly doesn't play hard every second he's on the floor.

But Sullinger promised to be reenergized after paying the ultimate price in the form of a loss, and that has shown up in practice. He understands, whether its verbal or by his actions, this team will look to him to lead it past times of doubt.

"I have seen angry Jared in practice sometimes," sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said. "It motivates me. I'm always out there laughing and having fun seeing our best player out there taking it serious, it just motivates me to go hard. We all feed off of him. We look to him out there."

Follow Me on Twitter and find us on Facebook.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories