Cody Cousino / Photo Editor
As the regular season came to an end in East Lansing, Mich., Sunday, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has struggled more than many people envisioned. As March Madness nears, the pressure continues to mount on the broad shoulders of sophomore forward Jared Sullinger as his legacy is decided.
After entering OSU touted as the second-best high school player in the nation according to ESPN last season, Sullinger lived up to all the expectations as a freshman, leading the Buckeyes to a 24-0 start, Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and the top overall seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on his way to becoming a First-Team All-American and winning the National Freshman of the Year Award.
Although the team fell short of expectations in the tournament, losing to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Sullinger received much praise after announcing that he would return for his sophomore season, though he likely would have been a top-five selection in the NBA Draft. With a strong returning cast of players, the Buckeyes appeared primed for another run at the title.
Expectations once again were sky-high as the Buckeyes entered this season, ranked third in the nation and heavily favored to make a run to the Final Four. Many Buckeye basketball fans were expecting a Big Ten title. Many fans were also expecting a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four to compete for a national title. Anything short of that would be considered a failure.
It all seemed achievable after Sullinger led another impressive 21-3 start.
Yet the team has hit adversity as of late, losing three of their last seven games. A team that had looked solid and confident through its early games, as well as all of last season, has hit its first real snag during Sullinger’s career. And all eyes are on the star to see how the team will respond.
When breaking it down, it really is an unfair situation. The big man is having another stellar season, averaging 17 points and 9.25 rebounds a game. But with losses come criticism and speculation. And whether the Buckeyes have looked shaky thanks to the inconsistent play of senior guard William Buford, costly turnovers by sophomore guard Aaron Craft or Deshaun Thomas having an off-shooting night, all the weight continues to fall on Sullinger, who has been the face of Buckeye basketball from his first day on campus.
Heading into Sunday, the red-hot, No. 5-ranked Spartans looked ready to overwhelm the Buckeyes. But against all odds in hostile territory, OSU secured a huge win on the back of Sullinger, aided by a huge shot by Buford in the waning seconds, to claim a share of the conference regular season title.
But whether or not the Buckeyes succeed the rest of the way will determine whether or not the young big man will be heralded as an all-time Buckeye great or another good player who could not deliver.
The Buckeyes probably don’t need to win a National Championship for Sullinger to save his faltering legacy, but a trip to the Final Four is almost certainly necessary to save this season from being considered a failure.
More importantly, Sullinger’s spot in OSU history hangs in the balance as March nears and the pressure cooker turns up.
If the Buckeyes fall short of a trip to New Orleans, Sullinger’s legacy will be one of great lore, but still a failure.
But should the Buckeyes cut down the nets in the Superdome in April, Sullinger will go down as the best big man to ever don the Scarlet and Gray.