CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- There is no good way to guard Ohio State's Jared Sullinger.
There are bad ways and not-quite-as-bad ways.
"You have to double him," teammate Aaron Craft said. "You just have to double him and take chances on the rest of us missing shots from the outside."
That said, here's a notable stat: Top-ranked Ohio State shot 46.7 percent from 3-point range Saturday at No. 23 Illinois. So it should come as no surprise that the Buckeyes exited Assembly Hall with a 73-68 win that solidified their place in both major polls. OSU (20-0, 7-0 Big Ten) kept feeding Sullinger and letting things unfold from there. When Illinois (14-6, 4-3 Big Ten) played him straight, he usually scored or got fouled. When a second man was waiting, he typically passed to a teammate for an open shot. Sullinger had 27 points and 16 rebounds when the final buzzer sounded. OSU coach Thad Matta tried to play it cool in the postgame press conference, then cracked a smile and acknowledged the obvious.
"I thought Jared was pretty good," Matta said before pausing for effect. "That was a joke. He was awesome."
Later I asked Craft if he just assumes, at this point, that Sullinger will score or be fouled every time he touches the ball. The freshman point guard -- most famous for his role in the recruiting violations that have threatened Bruce Pearl's tenure at Tennessee -- provided a mature answer. "I assume Jared is going to make the right decision," Craft said.
There were lots of moments that demonstrated this Saturday, but my favorite came early in the second half. Sullinger was on the right block begging his teammates to reverse the ball and throw it in because he had Mike Davis sealed. Wisely, OSU reversed the ball and fed Sullinger, and the 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman meticulously backed in Davis, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound senior. Predictably, Illinois' other big, Mike Tisdale, provided help, at which point Sullinger dished to Dallas Lauderdale for what should've been an easy dunk given that his man (Tisdale) had just left him for Sullinger.
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But Lauderdale fumbled the ball away.
He just wasted a gift.
But before anybody really knew what had happened, Sullinger already had grabbed the ball and decided to handle things himself. He drew a foul from Tisdale, then put the ball through the rim. Sullinger made the ensuing free throw, the Illini fans booed, and that's pretty much how the entire afternoon went. From start to finish, Sullinger got the ball and, as Craft put it, made the right decision. The right decision on his first touch during the above sequence was to pass to Lauderdale. So that's what he did. The right decision on his second touch during the above sequence was to score. So that's what he did.
"He's tough," Davis said. "He's bigger than I thought he was, he's a good player, and we didn't do a good job of stopping him. Next time we play him [on Feb. 22 at Ohio State], we've got to do a better job on him. If he goes for this we're gonna lose again."
Trust me, Mike, lots of folks are losing if Sullinger goes for 27 and 14 against them. The only reasonable course of action, like Craft said, is to double him, cross your fingers and hope he either makes bad decisions or his teammates miss open shots, neither of which was the case Saturday. Sullinger finished with zero turnovers despite regular double-teams. OSU made seven of its 15 3-point attempts despite David Lighty (a 46-percent 3-point shooter) making only 1 of 4.
"Good things happen [when Sullinger gets the ball]," Matta said. "People are so consumed with him, and that opens up avenues."
And locks down victories.
The Buckeyes have now won 20 straight heading into Tuesday's showdown with Purdue.
They'll lose eventually, I guess.
But if Sullinger keeps making the right decisions, it's hard to envision when, where or how.