Ally Marotti / Copy chief
America is finally going to get the matchup between Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger and Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson.
A possible regular-season meeting was aborted when Sullinger was pulled from the lineup before OSU’s Dec. 10, 2011, loss at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse due to back spasms.
Now, Sullinger the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional Champion, and Robinson, the Midwest Region’s most outstanding player, are on a collision course.
This star-studded encounter could have been derailed at any of several moments during the players’ respective careers, though.
Perhaps the most Sullinger has faced came during a 15-day period in February in which OSU lost 3-of-5 Big Ten games. A Final Four appearance was certainly in doubt during that time.
In 2010, Robinson faced a much more personal trials – his mother, grandmother and grandfather all died in February 2011.
Of Robinson’s personal struggles, Sullinger praised his soon-to-be combatant.
“(Robinson has) been through a lot. If anyone deserves this moment, it’s him,” Sullinger said of his opponent. “Last year, he went through a big-time emotional situation where I don’t think anybody could have handled it better than the way he has handled it.”
Both players have rebounded from on-court struggles – Sullinger now thanks the media for crticizing the team’s rough patches – and off-court tragedies – Robinson received NCAA-allowed aid from Kansas to pay for the funeral of his mother and receive estate-planning help, according to a Jan. 26, 2011 ESPN report..
The players’ struggles have long been in the rearview mirror as the Final Four approaches Saturday.
During this past season, Sullinger averaged more than 18 points and eight rebounds while the 6-foot-10, 237-pound Robinson has scored more than 17 points per game while hauling in just less than 12 rebounds per game.
The players received their respective First-Team All-American nods from the AP Monday.
OSU coach Thad Matta and Self agreed the tenor of Saturday’s game shifts as a result of Sullinger’s availability.
Self said he thinks OSU might have gained an advantage as a result of playing his team without Sullinger during a Tuesday teleconference.
“You could say that could be a little bit of an advantage and also the fact that even though we were obviously playing against a team that wasn’t full strength,” Self said. “Sometimes the advantage goes to the team that got knocked off.”
Matta said that having played Kansas without Sullinger isn’t necessarily a game-changing factor due to the time that has passed since the teams’ first meeting.
“You know, it’s been such a long time,” Matta said. “I think we’re obviously a different team, but they are too. I mean, they’re playing at a very, very high level right now. We can look at the film and that sort of thing, but we’ll definitely be a different basketball team than we were out there.
Self said Robinson, who dumped 21 points on OSU back in December, is looking forward to the matchup, along with the rest of his team.
“I think Thomas will be excited. I know he thinks a lot of Jared,” Self said. “Our guys, you know, they’ve played in enough big games and they like playing against the best. Certainly, we’ll get an opportunity to play not only a great team but one of the premiere players in the country.”
Matta called the players’ meeting a “great matchup” during a Tuesday teleconference.
“As you look across the board in the Final Four, there’s definitely some great players and there are going to be great matchups,” Matta said. “You know, (the) Robinson and (Sullinger matchup) is definitely one of them. You’ve got two of the best players in the country going head to head.”
For Sullinger’s part, he said he’s expecting a physical battle with Robinson during a Wednesday press conference.
“(Robinson is) very physical, strong, quick (and) athletic,” Sullinger said. “He’s a go-getter. He plays hard 100 percent of the time on offense and defense. It’ll be a pretty physical matchup.”
OSU and Kansas’ national semifinal game will tip Saturday at about 9 p.m.