NCAA Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Syracuse

Sophomore season was right call for maturing Jared Sullinger

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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

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.