BOSTON -- Jared Sullinger stood underneath the basket with a wide smile, a snip of the net threaded through his hat, which was flipped backward. He was watching his teammates dance while taking a peak at his coach, Thad Matta cut the final piece of the net from the rim. This was a scene he had envisioned for the past 364 days.
When Jared Sullinger uttered the words at the Prudential Center in New Jersey last season, few believed him. The Ohio State big man was a sure-fire lottery pick, guaranteed millions of dollars in the NBA this season.
"I'm coming back," Sullinger said moments after the Buckeyes were upset by Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
Yeah. Sure, Jared. That's what everyone says. Then reality sets in, they take the money and head to the pro ranks.
"I knew he was returning," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Ohio State only obstacle Syracuse can't conquer
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Whatever, Thad. That's pretty much the same line you used with Mike Conley, Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens and even Greg Oden. They all bolted to the league after their freshman campaigns. But not Sully. He's a different dude, a guy who actually loves college basketball -- and one who understood that he wasn't yet physically and emotionally prepared to play at the next level.
However, as much as anything else, Sullinger came back to win a national title.
"He couldn't go out with that taste in his mouth," teammate Deshaun Thomas said.
Sullinger accomplished his first goal on Saturday night, knocking off No. 1 seed Syracuse 77-70 to advance to the Final Four. The first half was far from a clinic, with the referees blowing their whistles early and often, sending players from both sides to the bench -- including the Buckeyes' star big man, who spent the final 13 minutes, 42 seconds of the first half as a bystander after picking up his second foul.
But his team did enough, especially on the defensive end, without Sullinger on the court to go into halftime tied at 29. Then Sully went to work in the second half, taking advantage of an Orange team that was without its starting center Fab Melo, and finished with 15 points after the break.
"This is what he came back for," said Satch Sullinger, Jared's father and high school coach. "He wasn't ready for the NBA. He was only 19 years old and needed to grow up."
Sullinger has matured, but he's still a kid at heart.
"A big Teddy bear," said Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft.
"He's like that big yellow bird on Sesame Street," added Thomas. "Big Bird."
Big Bird has led Ohio State, a team that didn't quite fulfill preseason expectations, to the Final Four for the first time since 2007 -- when Oden, Conley and Daequan Cook took them to the national championship contest.
"I know people didn't believe it when I said it, but I was always planning on staying two years," Sullinger said.
"Unless he won a national title his freshman season," Satch Sullinger added.
But that didn't happen. Last year's group, which entered the NCAA tournament a year ago as the top overall seed and favorite to cut down the nets in Houston, was upset by a Kentucky team that wasn't nearly as talented. The Buckeyes lost three starters -- David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale -- and were supposed to take a dip.
The Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular-season crown, but shared it with both Michigan State and Michigan. Then Ohio State lost to Tom Izzo's Spartans in the league championship game.
"I appreciated everyone that doubled this basketball team," Sullinger said. "Said we were the underdogs, that we weren't good enough, mentally strong enough, physically strong enough, mentally immature. We heard it all."
Some of it was warranted. There was the loss back in mid-December at Kansas without Sullinger, who was sitting out with a back injury. Then one in Bloomington against Indiana. Brandon Paul torched the Buckeyes for 43 in a loss in Champaign. There were home setbacks to Michigan State and Wisconsin with a road loss at Michigan sandwiched in-between. Seven losses after coming up short in the Big Ten title game to Sparty.
"I think we had to do some soul-searching," Craft admitted.
But Sullinger was on a mission -- and if he ever forgot his motivation, it was there each day when he walked into his bathroom. There hung a photo of Kentucky's Brandon Knight, the man responsible for knocking out Ohio State via the game-winner with 5.4 ticks left on the clock.
"I put that up after a month and a half," Sullinger said. "I looked everywhere for it on the Internet."
That constant reminder and maybe the reason why Ohio State's slimmed-down big man remains on campus.
"We'd always joke about it with him," Craft said. "But when he said he was coming back, I trusted him. I wasn't too surprised."
"I wasn't ready," Sullinger added. "And I couldn't go out that way."
Two more wins and Knight's shot will become a distant memory.