"This team isn't playing as good as we know we are," he said.
That was the explanation a somber Sullinger mustered shortly after No. 6 Ohio State's 56-51 loss to No. 17 Michigan on Saturday night. The difference in the Buckeyes' most recent defeat is also something Sullinger has become accustomed to saying.
"We just couldn't make a shot," he said.
The Buckeyes made only 19 of their 49 shot attempts (38.8 percent) in a loss that knocked them out of a first place tie with Michigan State in the Big Ten standings.
Now Ohio State (22-5, 10-4) – a team that was in a position to take control of the conference race just over a week ago – is in a tie for second with Michigan (20-7, 10-4) and stands a half-game back of the Spartans, who could take a full game lead with a win against Purdue on Sunday.
"I can't even think about the conference race right now," Sullinger said. "We just have to get back to Columbus and get back to work. We have a lot to fix and I wouldn't be surprised if we spent the entire practice tomorrow working on shooting."
Columbus native Trey Burke led the way for Michigan, who scored on two driving runners in the final 1:18 of the game – including one over his former high school teammate Sullinger – to help put away the Buckeyes. He finished with a team-high 17 points.
Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 25 points and 13 rebounds and Sullinger scored 14 points, 10 of which were scored in the second half once Ohio State made it a point to feed him the ball inside rather than settling for outside looks.
"We want to go to him as much as we possibly can," Matta said of Sullinger, "but a lot of times you need to make shots to open some other things up and that's something we were unable to do tonight – just to open up the floor a little bit."
Ohio State trailed by a point at 17-16 with 7:15 remaining in the first half when Sullinger spun opposite a double team and scored in the paint. That theme didn't last long, as the Buckeyes went the rest of the first half without a field goal from the All-America big man.
The Buckeyes didn't score for the next six minutes, often settling for outside looks that simply weren't going in. William Buford broke the scoreless streak on a layup fed by Thomas on the baseline with 1:09 remaining in the first half to cut the deficit to five, but the senior couldn't get into a groove.
Ohio State trailed by five points at 25-20 at the half after Thomas grabbed an offensive rebound and put the ball back in as time expired, but the Buckeyes finished the first 20 minutes of the contest missing on all of their nine shot attempts from beyond the arc.
Many of those attempts were open looks that Matta said he wouldn't have changed, but the Buckeyes simply couldn't convert.
"We ran our offense, we just couldn't make a shot," Sullinger said. "There are times where you don't make shots and you grind out a win. In this case, we missed shots and stopped playing defense. They got what they wanted and they scored when they wanted. We lost."
Michigan doubled its lead to 10 with less than 12 minutes remaining in the game with the Buckeyes continuing its pattern of missing field goals. However, at that point Ohio State started to make a larger effort getting the ball into Sullinger.
Sullinger shot the ball on five straight possessions, scoring on three, and the Buckeyes cut the Wolverines' lead to four at 42:38 with 8:55 remaining in the game.
Michigan extended its lead to 47-40 with 7:25 left on a three-point play by Jordan Morgan, but Thomas knocked down a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to keep Ohio State's deficit at four.
The two teams traded baskets until Sullinger scored in the paint to bring the Buckeyes' within three with 2:00 minutes left. Michigan's Zack Novack knocked down a tough jumper late in the shot clock and the Buckeyes didn't get closer than three for the remainder of the game.
"I am worried, as a team," Thomas said. "We can't afford to lose right now, at this stage, in February. We want to win. We want to make history. That's what we're trying to do. … We can't do that unless we make shots."