Jared Sullinger’s decision to return to Ohio State ensured the Buckeyes another shot at getting to the Final Four. Thad Matta hadn’t had much luck keeping big men around Columbus for more than one year — witness Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens.
However, Sullinger is a different breed. He averaged a double-double as a freshman and would have been a sure-fire lottery pick, but he opted to return for another year in college.
He told reporters immediately after getting bounced in the Elite Eight that he’d be back — and he stuck to his word. Athlon Sports sat down with Sullinger over the summer to discuss the upcoming season.
Athlon Sports: What is your favorite opposing gym?
Jared Sullinger: Michigan — mostly because of the rivalry. That building is electric and a fun place to play.
What’s the place you least like to play in the Big Ten?
I’m not sure there is a bad place to play in the league, but they were entertaining at Purdue. They kept singing “Party in the USA” and were yelling “Subway Diet” at me every time I was at the free throw line.
Who is the toughest guy who guarded you so far in college?
Colton Iverson at Minnesota (who has since transferred to Colorado State). The one thing about him is that I couldn’t move him. He really held his ground and I honestly didn’t expect that.
How about the most difficult player you have had to guard?
JaJuan Johnson. He’s able to make really difficult shots. Even when I had a hand in his face, he made shots. There was really nothing you could do.
Which coach in the league would you want to play for — other than Thad Matta, of course?
Tubby Smith. I like his high-low. It looks like there are a lot of easy baskets down in the post.
You didn’t wait long to announce you’d be coming back to Ohio State for your sophomore season. You did it immediately after you guys lost in the Elite Eight. Did you ever have second thoughts after saying it?
Never. Honestly, I knew the whole year I was coming back. I never came out and blatantly said it, but I knew. A lot of people were telling me it was off emotion, but I knew I was coming back — and I’m a man of my word.
Why did you decide to come back even though you probably would have been a high lottery pick?
My teammates. They make college fun. I still want to be a kid. I don’t want to be a professional just yet. I’m honestly having too much fun right now — and I also think that I can learn a lot more from Coach Matta and develop my game before I get to the next level.
When did it hit you that your season was over?
The day after we lost, when I got on the plane. I was thinking that we were supposed to be in the hotel getting ready to shoot. Actually, maybe it was right after the game, when the buzzer went off, I was still thinking we had tomorrow. But then I walked in the locker room and saw Jon (Diebler), Dave (Lighty) and Dallas (Lauderdale) all crying, and then it hit me that there was no tomorrow for them.
How much blame did you put on yourself for the loss to Kentucky?
Those two free throws I missed. I put a lot on those because we ended up losing by two points. I went 7-for-9 from the line, but if I make those two free throws, we have a chance to go to overtime. It’s tough thinking about that. It’s still tough.
There’s been a lot of talk that you decided to come back so that you could expand your game and play power forward.
I talked to Coach Matta and told him that whatever position he wants me to play, I’ll play it. Whatever he asks, I’ll do — whether it’s the 4 or the 5. People say that I can’t shoot, dribble and that I’m too slow to guard a 4. I’ll let people be the judge of that this year. I came in last year at 285 pounds, and now I’m at 275. It’s a big difference. I’m actually surviving conditioning this time around.
How tough has it been to slim down? Let’s face it, I know you like food.
I love to eat, but I don’t eat a lot anymore. I used to eat three or four plates at each meal, but I’ve cut it down now to just one plate. It’s kind of crazy.
What’s your ultimate meal?
My mom’s steak, my aunt’s broccoli and cheese and some loaded mashed potatoes.
Have you and Aaron Craft worked on your voices after that, um, unique rendition last year of “Party in the USA” that made the rounds just about everywhere?
No singing lessons. We still get a lot of stuff about that, though. I was in a fast food restaurant and “Party in the USA” came on and everyone in the whole place wanted me to sing it.
Give me a rating from 1 to 10 on each of your singing performances — you, (Aaron) Craft and (Jon) Diebler.
(laughing) Craft was a negative two, Diebler was probably a 0.28 and I was a 10. But I’m going to take Craft’s side on this one, he was sick when he sang. He’s better than what was in the video.
What’s your take on a bunch of the top players — not just you — returning to college basketball this season?
That was pretty amazing for college basketball. We showed that it’s not just about the money; it’s about winning. I know Terrence Jones and Harrison Barnes personally — and they both love to win. This was a big step for college basketball. and I think it’ll make for a great year.
With Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all coming back to North Carolina and Jones returning to Kentucky, you guys went from the preseason No. 1 team in the country to the consensus No. 3 team. What are your thoughts on that?
I feel like we’re in the same spot as we were last year, not being the favorite — but being ranked somewhere between three and five. It doesn’t really matter to me. I like where we’re at — and I love the freshman class we’ve brought in.
Tell us a little bit about this new group. Give us your thoughts on each of the new guys.
Let’s start with (center) Amir Williams. He’s a funny kid who is real athletic and has a high motor. (Center) Trey McDonald is a hard worker who is pretty dang good. (Forward) Sam Thompson is athletic, smart and is high-energy — especially on defense. (Forward) LaQuinton Ross is a skilled forward who is long as can be, and (point guard) Shannon Scott is fast and is similar to Aaron Craft. These guys are really going to help us this year and in the future.
What do you want to do after you are done playing basketball?
I want to own my own business someday. I’m big and I like to eat. I want to own a restaurant, maybe a soul food place.