But a pair of losses on last week's road trip to San Francisco and the Maui Invitational have cast a different light on tonight's home opener with No. 13 Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (7 p.m., ESPN).
Sullinger, a native of nearby Worthington, has been looking forward to tonight for years – or at least since transferring from Arkansas 18 months ago. But that excitement has dimmed as he and his teammates are forced to take a more businesslike approach to tonight's game with the unbeaten Yellow Jackets, winners of the Preseason NIT last week.
"It is going to be exciting," Sullinger said. "It is really exciting to play my first game in my hometown. But I honestly haven't been thinking too much about it.
"This is a big game for us. We're looking at it in a different kind of way. It's vital. We are approaching it with a sense of urgency. We have to get a win."
Have to get a win? On Dec. 3, can there be such a thing as a must-win?
Well, when you consider that Ohio State (2-2) stumbled out of the gate with double-digit losses to San Francisco and San Diego State before righting the ship with wins over Central Michigan and Villanova in Maui, you might see where Sullinger is coming from.
Plus, Georgia Tech (5-0) swept through the Preseason NIT. They have won their five games by an average of 22 points with the closest margin being a 77-61 win over then-No. 1-ranked Connecticut in the NIT semifinals last Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Coach Paul Hewitt's Yellow Jackets then rolled Bob Knight's Texas Tech squad 85-65 in the NIT finals.
"They are a good team," Sullinger said. "You aren't ranked (13th) by accident. This would definitely give us a boost come March (with NCAA consideration). But it may be still too early to look at it like that."
OSU got an up close and personal look at Georgia Tech last season, losing to the Yellow Jackets 72-58 in a first-round game of the NIT. This is a slightly different team, though, as 6-10 post player Chris Bosh left Tech early for the NBA draft. Hewitt has switched the focus of his team to the perimeter.
"I think Paul has done a good job with these guys," said OSU coach Jim O'Brien. "They are very good at a lot of positions. They are very athletic. They're very hard to play. This could be one of the premier teams in the country right now."
Georgia Tech features four players averaging 14 points or more, led by 6-4 forward B.J. Elder (16.6 ppg). Is'mail Muhammad, a 6-6 forward, comes off the bench to provide stellar defense as well as 15.0 points per game. Point guard Jarrett Jack, a 6-3 sophomore, is averaging 14.6 points per game, while 6-4 shooting guard Marvin Lewis is averaging 14.0 points per contest.
"It's hard to imagine this team being better without Bosh," O'Brien said. "They are very perimeter oriented and they are all interchangeable parts. Elder and Muhammad are very tough match-ups. Jack has a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, which is good. This kid, Lewis, is a very good three-point shooter. They just spread you out and they play. The other thing is they guard you very well. They do a lot of switching. They pressure the ball very well."
O'Brien said the focus has been on his team since its return from Maui on Thanksgiving day.
"We've had some very hard practices," he said. "There is an awful lot that we need to continue to work on. I think we learned a lot about our team on that trip. There are things directly that we can control. We have been our own worst enemy, quite frankly. We need to be so much better at the free throw line. We need to cut down the turnovers and we need to foul a lot less. I think all three of those things are things we are capable of.
"I think right now, we are nowhere near the team we can be. I think there is a lot of growth potential with this team."
One area of concern for O'Brien has been the play of senior captain and center Velimir Radinovic. Foul problems have limited Radinovic to an average of just 16 minutes per game so far this year. He is only scoring 4.3 points per game and has taken just six shots from the floor, making five of them."We envisioned having the opportunity to have the two big kids (Radinovic and power forward Terence Dials) in the game at the same time," O'Brien said. "Unfortunately, Velimir hasn't had an opportunity to play much because he's always in foul trouble. When you look at our stat sheet and see in four games, he is 5 for 6. That's absurd. You've got to be kidding me. His stat line is just bizarre for a guy who has the potential he has. I still maintain that we have to be able to play with both of those guys and play how we want to play. We really need him to come out of his slump and play better."
Stockman, a transfer from Clemson also ready to make his regular season home debut, leads OSU at 18.0 points per game. Sullinger is next at 12.8 ppg. Dials is averaging a double-double at 10.0 ppg and 10.5 rebounds per contest.
When asked if he felt like he had found a rotation, O'Brien said, "Not even close. We're still trying to play games with who is going to get minutes and who is going to start and what are the best combinations."
The two early season losses could be good for OSU, O'Brien said, if the team responds – starting tonight.
"I think there was this perception on the outside and maybe even with a couple of our guys that perhaps we were a little bit better than we really are right now," he said. "I think we have a chance to get to where we want to be, but we're not there right now. We've been behind on what we've been attempting to do."
This is the fifth year for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The ACC has won the Commissioners Cup each of the first four years and, after taking four of the first five games this year, needs just one win tonight to claim the Cup again this year.
In other games tonight: Clemson visits Purdue at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2), Duke travels to Michigan State at 9 p.m. (ESPN) and Minnesota visits Virginia at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2).