On the bathroom mirror of his Columbus apartment, Ohio State sophomore power forward Jared Sullinger keeps a dark memento from last season, a picture of Kentucky guard Brandon Knight's game-winning shot that abruptly terminated the Buckeyes' season in the Sweet 16. "That ending impacted me a lot," says Sullinger, the national freshman of the year who passed on June's NBA draft though he was a likely top five pick. "It upped my motor, it kept me pushing. I took my conditioning and workouts more seriously this off-season."
More noticeably, Sullinger revamped his diet. Since last season he has dropped 20 pounds (he now carries 265 on his 6'9" frame) and pared his body fat from 16.7% to 12.1%. His secret: He stopped consuming fast food and juice and changed the way he eats. "Smaller portions, more meals," he says. "I know it doesn't make sense, but I have the results to prove it works."
His teammates agree. "Jared moves so much better now," says guard William Buford, the Buckeyes' lone senior. "He has more post moves, he can step out and shoot from midrange, and his footwork is much better. He'll be even more unstoppable now."
Given his increased mobility, Sullinger, who averaged a double double while playing mostly a post-up game last season, might spend more time facing the basket this year. "I think the more we can move him around, the more that might alleviate some of the beatings he takes on a nightly basis," says coach Thad Matta. But there is no way the big man will abandon the post entirely, adds Matta. "You can't forget he is the best in the country down on the block."
With a lineup that includes Sullinger, Buford (a long-range sniper who has a shot at becoming the school's career scoring leader) and sophomore guard Aaron Craft (a tenacious on-ball defender who led the team in steals and assists off the bench last year), the young Buckeyes (10 of 13 players are underclassmen) are a heavy favorite to win a third straight Big Ten title. Ohio State hasn't pulled off that three-peat since it won five straight in the early '60s. Even more impressive would be a feat the Buckeyes haven't achieved since 1960: a national title. That would provide an ending Sullinger could happily reflect on for a long time.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Thad Matta (8th season)
2010--11 RECORD 34--3 BIG TEN 16--2 (1st)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Sweet 16
*High school stats
THREE-POINT PERCENTAGE for the Buckeyes last year, best in the nation. Expect Buford (44.2) and Craft (37.7) to take advantage of the inevitable double teams on Sullinger.
William Buford, Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger beat up on the Big Ten. Then they crush opponents and win the NCAA title they should have won last year.
No one steps into the leadership void on an underclassmen-heavy team. Despite the talent of Sullinger, the Buckeyes crash in the Sweet 16 again.
WILLIAM BUFORD The senior sharpshooter will get hefty support from teammate Sullinger, who has developed a midrange game.