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Sophomore season was right call for maturing Jared Sullinger

Mar 24, 2012, 11:24 PM EDT

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Syracuse Getty Images

BOSTON – When Jared Sullinger signed on to play college basketball for Ohio State, he gave the Buckeyes a skilled big man; a frontcourt anchor who was a consensus top five player from the class of 2010.

Immediately the most talented player on the team, the humble and personable Sullinger did his best not to step on anybody’s toes.

“He blended in,” said Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals. “When he came in as a freshman, he followed, he listened, he didn’t have that superstar ego mentality, and that really set the tone for the whole year.”

As the season moved along it was clear that Sullinger was, in fact, one of the more talented college basketball back-to-the-basket players in recent memory, leading the Big Ten Conference in rebounding and finishing seventh in scoring.

So naturally, when Sullinger decided to return to college instead of declare for the NBA Draft, it raised more red flags than praise in basketball circles.

In his sophomore campaign, Sullinger by no means breezed through the competition.

He faced double teams, he faced a rough February, he even faced a three-headed green monster of Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix that gave him fits — all which contributed to fairly similar numbers from his freshman season.

But he also led his team to the Final Four, and that is why he came back to Columbus for a second season.

You can say what you want about Jared Sullinger. You may think his decision to come back to school may have cost him money, may have hurt his NBA Draft stock, may have even changed the college basketball fan’s perception of how good he really was.

Whatever you think, don’t for a second think it bothers him.

If anything, it motivates him.

“I appreciate everyone that doubted this basketball team,” said Sullinger with a grin following tonight’s Elite Eight victory over Syracuse. “We heard negative comments, and I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Despite foul trouble that forced the big man to sit out for 14 of the game’s first 20-minutes, Sullinger responded to score 15 of his 19 points in the second half to lead the Buckeyes to their 10th Final Four appearance in program history.

In the process, he was named East Region Most Outstanding Player.

Just like what we saw from him during a demanding schedule, Sullinger showed he’s someone you may be able to hold down for a period of time – someone you may be able to bend –  but rarely can you do it for an entire game. The kid won’t break. He just grinds and goes to work down low until he gets what he wants.

“He’s taken a pounding all year, but he’s responded great,” said Boals. “Even in practice, we would purposely not call fouls to let him get beat on. There was a point in the season where he was getting frustrated and we sat him down and showed him a few things on tape. And ever since that, he’s taken off.”

So now with the regionals in the rear view, the Buckeyes must continue with their progression through the field of 68.

While the Final Four is an excellent accomplishment for this team, it by no means should feel like the end. This was a pre-season No. 3 team in both the AP and Coaches Poll. Many people would expect the Buckeyes to still be standing this late in the season.

“Hopefully, it’s not our last game,” said Sullinger. “We’re not going down to New Orleans for a vacation.”

“This is a business trip.”

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

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