Sullinger and Thomas peaking for Buckeyes

JOHN MARSHALL AP Basketball Writer Published:

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Jared Sullinger's decision to return gave Ohio State a boost, both this season and in the future.

Deshaun Thomas' emergence as an added scoring threat has taken some of the weight off his teammate's hefty shoulders.

Put the two sophomore forwards together and the Buckeyes have a formidable frontcourt, one that's going to be tough for even Kansas, with its big-man pairing of Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Thomas said.

Ohio State might not have had this chance had Sullinger done what most people expected him to and left for the NBA after his freshman season.

The 6-foot-9 forward with a combination of athleticism and power could have been a lottery pick had he come out. But after the Buckeyes were knocked out early in last year's NCAA tournament as the top overall seed and with the NBA lockout looming, Sullinger decided to return for his sophomore season.

With Sullinger back, expectations ratcheted up for Ohio State, even with 11 underclassmen on the roster.

The Buckeyes and Sullinger lived up to the hype early in the season, then went into a funk, losing three of five. Sullinger got caught up in the officiating, what people were saying and had to be prodded by coach Thad Matta to become more engaged in games.

Once he shrugged off the peripheral stuff and concentrated on just playing basketball, Sullinger became the player everyone expected, including himself.

"At the end of the day, it's not about what they think, it's about how we can win basketball games," Sullinger said.

And that's just what Sullinger has done: help the Buckeyes win.

Since a lackluster game against Wisconsin on Feb. 26 and a talking-to by Matta the next day, Sullinger has been dominant.

He had 22 points and 18 rebounds against Northwestern the first game after his sit-down with Matta, and averaged 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in the Big Ten tournament. Sullinger has been just as good in the NCAA tournament, averaging 18 points and 8.3 rebounds despite the foul trouble he had against Gonzaga.

Even more important, he has the Buckeyes two wins from their first NCAA title since 1960 and has given the program a boost in prominence and in recruiting for years to come.

"I think he's put a stamp on this program," Matta said. "He's going to be known as one of the all-time greatest players to wear the scarlet and gray."

Thomas has a chance to help cement Sullinger's place in history.

Little more than a bit player as a freshman, Thomas has developed into a scoring threat who can get his points in a variety of ways.

At 6-7, he's just two inches shorter than Sullinger but is about 50 pounds lighter and more of a slasher. Thomas is a good outside shooter who can hit 3-pointers and his left-handed release is hard for opponents to defend.

Ohio State's second-leading scorer during the regular season, Thomas has boosted his scoring average five points to 21.8 in the NCAA tournament, leading the Buckeyes.

A prolific scorer in high school, now he's doing it on the big stage of the Final Four.

"My mind is right," Thomas said. "I have a great mindset, and I take every day in practice serious like it's a game. I work on my game outside of basketball when we don't have practice. I've clicked on offense."

Thanks, in part, to Thomas' emergence, Sullinger's decision to return is looking like a good one.

Sure, he could have millions of dollars and maybe his draft stock has dipped ever so slightly, but he got to spend at least one more year in the less-to-worry-about world of college and has a chance put his name among the Buckeyes' all-time greats by leading them to a national championship.

"I wanted to make a statement that not everyone is using college basketball as a pit stop to go to the next level," Sullinger said. "There is more than money and endorsements. There's championships that you have to win at every level. I've won a championship all the way from elementary (school) to now. I pride myself on winning. That's why I came back."

With Thomas helping out, he has a chance.