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Sullinger swears he'll be back; we'll see

by | CBSSports.com
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Ohio State didn't even make it halfway to a national championship.

The No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA tournament ran into a team Buckeyes coach Thad Matta called more than capable of winning the national title.

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In the wake of the somewhat surprising loss -- given what Ohio State had done the previous weekend, winning dominantly over inferior teams, losing 62-60 to Kentucky wasn't an anticipated outcome -- Jared Sullinger intently, measuredly let his anger and disappointment out, like a pressure cooker slowly but surely getting its lid loosened.

The Ohio State freshman was equal parts defiant and emphatic in the Buckeyes' locker room. He intermittently sipped on his blue, Mountain Berry Blast Powerade and proclaimed he was coming back. For 30 minutes, Sullinger took questions, promised his sophomore season would happen, and took ownership of his team's loss. In that moment, he took over the leadership role.

"I'm gonna be here, gonna be at Ohio State next year," Sullinger said when asked about his future. He further explained: "I don't like the look in peoples' eyes [right now] and I don't like the taste we have of losing. I don't appreciate losing. If I made a decision about [leaving] next year, it would be off a win, not a loss."

Sullinger played 39 of 40 minutes, scoring 21 points and grabbing 16 rebounds; it was his 18th double-double on the year, tying a school record. Thanks to the equally inspired and fiery play of his counterpart, Kentucky's Josh Harrellson, Sullinger was emotional and bombastic throughout the game. Whether he realized it or not, Harrellson likely catalyzed Sullinger to another level. This was stemmed from the Kentucky big man firing a ball off Sullinger in the first half as he was falling out of bounds. It was a legal-but-punctuating play that set the tone for the remainder.

"We don't like the taste that we have in our mouth right now," Sullinger said. "Losing is not what we do and it's not what we accept. To take this jersey off and see Dave Lighty and Eddie Days and Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler take off their jersey for the last time is very touching, because they won't be able to put this jersey back on."

The Buckeyes had so much going for them. They looked, far and away, to be the best team in college basketball. It was proven from November through mid-March, and there were no hiccups in the first two games they played in the bracket last weekend. Friday night was Ohio State's first loss against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats snapping Ohio State's nine-game winning streak, but more importantly, its season in the process.

While Sullinger tried to show everyone how this loss was immediately making him stronger, his teammates' reactions about the Buckeyes' locker room varied.

Diebler was fresh off talking to the media at large at the postgame podium. He slow-stepped into the locker room, his eyes still plenty red around the white. Diebler recited the same five or six soundbites to the rotating handful of reporters who came to his chair and asked him about his game-tying shot, and what went wrong in the game, particularly, the final 20 seconds, when Brandon Knight delivered a counter-punch that made Ohio State the third No. 1 seed to fail to reach the Elite Eight in this year's tournament (only Kansas remains).

"It's just a ... I don't even know what I was thinking," Diebler said. "It's kind of surreal just to realize that it's over now. ... You've got to cherish every possession, whether it's the two free throws I missed, some of the turnovers we had in transition."

Aaron Craft, the freshman who plays annoying-as-popcorn-kernels-in-your-teeth defense, couldn't stop his frosh counterpart, Knight, from getting off the game-winning shot. He sat a few feet to Diebler's left during interviews. The young man didn't have much to say; he'd never dealt with a loss like this.

"I won't forget about that for the rest of my life," Craft said of Knight's final basket. "He made a good shot, I thought I contested it, but obviously didn't do it well enough. ... It's devastating the way it ended."

Few took the loss as hard as junior William Buford, who put up a bit of a forced 3, the last shot of Ohio State's season, with three seconds remaining. Buford was 2-for-16 from the field. His final heave came as a wave of blue and white jerseys trailed behind him in the final frenetic seconds of Friday's regional semifinal at the Prudential Center.

"We had great expectations. The Sweet 16 is not where we should've ended," Buford said, composing himself. "It just hurts."

Fifth-year senior Lighty didn't know how to react. He was glassy-eyed and a bit unresponsive to some questions. He was the only one who stood for the entirety of his interviews. Just stood in the middle of the locker room and took in the final moments he'd have in an Ohio State uniform.

"You don't want it to sink in. You don't want it to ever end," Lighty said. "I just try not to think about it very much. It probably hasn't hit me yet. That's hard to explain."

Amid all this, Sullinger let wave after wave of reporters come to him and took the loss on like a man. He was distraught to see his senior teammates' careers come to a premature end in the Sweet 16. When asked if this was an emotional, in-the-moment decision, and if there were any possibility he would change his mind in the coming weeks, Sullinger said, "I'm a man of my word. That's period, point blank. I'm coming back."

Many are skeptical right now, as they are allowed to and should be. Countless first-round talents have promised another season with their college teams, only to be swayed by NBA millions mere weeks later. The impending NBA lockout may allow Sullinger to keep his promise; no one's quite sure what to make of what will happen with the league.

When pressed further for a means of proof to his promise, Sullinger wasted no time in feeding his response -- with eye contact and without a stutter.

"The love of this basketball team makes me want to come back," Sullinger said. "These guys are my brothers. To see five of them depart from us is very touching. I'm going to miss these guys terribly. And I feel like I let them down today. So I'm going to come back and show them that I had a lapse, and I can do better."

Sullinger wanted to make himself into a leader after this loss. He wanted the attention, scorn and responsibility of not reaching the Final Four. He better keep to his word; Ohio State fans will now cling to this and remind him of it every day until the NBA Draft comes and goes. Only then will he truly be believed, no matter how badly he wanted to convince anyone who would listen Friday night.

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