Ohio St. better hope Jared Sullinger’s injury isn’t serious

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Jared Sullinger’s back failed us all.

This was supposed to be one of the most interesting matchups of the young season, and not solely because of the names on the front of the jerseys. While having two programs with as much prestige as No. 2 Ohio State and No. 13 Kansas share the court for 40 minutes in a storied Phog Allen Fieldhouse is terrific television viewing in and or itself, the fact that it featured two of the most intriguing big man prospects in the country only increased the intrigue.

But Sullinger couldn’t get his back loosened up, and as a result, Ohio State had to take the floor without their star center and a first-team all-american.

The Jayhawks took advantage. Thomas Robinson finished with 21 points and seven boards while Kevin Young had his best game in a Kansas uniform, scoring 14 points off the bench, as the Jayhawks rolled to a 78-67 win.

The question is how we judge this win. How do we look at it when the rankings are released on Monday? How do we interpret it come Selection Sunday? How can we, with any realistic accuracy, determine what would have happened in this game had Jared Sullinger played?

Because right now this win has an asterisk, and it goes beyond the fact that Kansas was playing the game at home. Ohio State is a different team without Sullinger in the lineup. Losing a guy that averages 19.1 ppg and 10.3 rpg is a massive blow no matter how you look at it. When Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams are the players that see time as replacements, the impact of that loss gets maginifed.

But there is more to it than that.

Sullinger forces a defense to do so many things differently when he is on the floor. He’s such a threat on the block when he catches the ball that defensive game-plans have to be built completely around how to help down on or double the post and rotate to shooters if the ball gets kicked out. Even when Sullinger doesn’t touch the ball, his presence in the paint and his ability to seal his defender forces the opponent’s defense to loosen up and slough to the paint a little bit more.

With Ohio State’s ability to swing the ball around the perimeter, those couple of extra steps makes a world of difference in getting open looks for shooters and creating 1-on-1 isolation opportunities on the perimeter. Given the fact that this season, Thad Matta has guys like Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert as secondary offensive options instead of David Lighty and Jon Diebler, and creating those open looks through ball movement becomes all-the-more important; the Buckeyes simply don’t have the same kind of talent and shot creation on the perimeter.

This is still a fairly impressive win for Kansas as Ohio State never really threatened the lead despite the fact that both DeShaun Thomas and William Buford managed to get into a pretty good rhythm for a half. The Jayhawks, frankly, didn’t play their best game, either. Robinson’s 21 points and seven boards were quiet, meaning he did a lot of his damage late in the game — with about 10 minutes left, he had just 11 points and two boards. Even without Sullinger on the court, Robinson did not dominate the Buckeye front line.

Tyshawn Taylor wasn’t particularly great either. He did dish out 13 assists, which is a very impressive total for anyone, but he turned the ball over seven times in the process and shot just 3-9 from the floor.

Sullinger’s injury — which, hopefully, is not something that will plague him all season long; they said on the broadcasy that his back is so inflamed that it is difficult for him to bend down and touch his toes — took away from a matchup that a lot of people were looking forward to.

But it also made it very difficult to get any kind of read on what this performance means for both teams.
What We Learned

Kansas:

– The Jayhakws are not going to be at their best until they can learn to protect the ball better. They had 18 assists but also 18 turnovers against Ohio State. Tyshawn Taylor is the biggest culprit. He has 32 turnovers in his last five games and has an assist-to-turnover ratio that was below one heading into today. You cannot have your primary ball-handler be that careless.

– Kevin Young is going to be an important piece for the Jayhawks if he can develop into an inside-outside threat. Young had 14 points, grabbed a couple of offensive boards and knocked down a pair of threes. If Young can provide Self with a steady face-up option to play alongside Robinson, it gives Kansas that much more versatility.

– It was nice to see Elijah Johnson bust out of his shooting slump with a 5-7 day from beyond the arc.

Ohio State:

– The Buckeyes better hope that Sullinger’s injury isn’t very serious. Without him in the lineup, they are a very different team.

– The biggest issue offensively for Ohio State is that they just don’t have the kind of weapons on their perimeter that are going to consistently be able to create points and shots. William Buford is not exactly a go-to scorer; he’s more of a complimentary player. DeShaun Thomas can get buckets, but I am concerned that telling him he has free reign to shoot whenever he pleases can be like opening up Pandora’s Box. Aaron Craft is more of a steadying influence and a facilitator at the point than he is a dynamic creator. Sullinger’s presence nullifies that.

– I think that the offensive end is where Ohio State will be hurt the most without Sullinger, but defensively they should still be fine. Sullinger takes up a lot of space, but he’s not a shot-blocker and he’s not a guy that is going to go out of his area to grab rebounds. Ravenel and Williams aren’t quite as strong and don’t hold position as well, but they really aren’t that big of a drop-off.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.