Ohio State lost the national player of the year last spring when Evan Turner declared for the NBA draft. If the rest of Jared Sullinger’s freshman season looks anything like his first two games, the award might not be leaving Columbus.
After leading the way to a road win over a top-10 opponent with another double-double, Sullinger looks to continue his hot start Saturday night as the fourth-ranked Buckeyes host North Carolina Wilmington.
Despite winning a bevy of postseason awards, Turner couldn’t carry Ohio State (2-0) past the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament last season.
The junior declared for the draft less than two weeks after the Buckeyes’ loss to Tennessee, though coach Thad Matta did see his other four starters return.
Ohio State isn’t missing Turner too much so far. David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford have formed a dynamic three-guard backcourt, while the 6-foot-9 Sullinger - one of the nation’s top recruits - has seamlessly stepped into the role of star.
After a 19-point, 14-rebound college debut Nov. 12 in a 102-61 rout of North Carolina A&T, Sullinger made 13 of 17 shots Tuesday at Florida, finishing with 26 points and 10 boards in a 93-75 win over the ninth-ranked Gators.
No Ohio State freshman had started his career with consecutive double-doubles since Herb Williams had three in a row in 1977.
“(Jared) had a great demeanor coming in here,” Matta said. “He’s a special player, a special kid. It was amazing, in some timeouts in the second half, he was the one saying ‘hey, let’s run this’ or ‘let’s exploit this.’”
Ohio State trailed by three at halftime before making 24 of its 34 second-half shots, outscoring Florida 55-34.
“That’s ungodly,” Matta said. “We did a great job finding the open man.”
Sullinger hasn’t been the only Buckeye to shine so far. Lighty had 26 points against the Gators and Buford had eight assists, while Diebler has hit seven 3-pointers through two games and forward Dallas Lauderdale has nine blocks.
Florida coach Billy Donovan, for one, doesn’t think losing Turner has hurt Ohio State.
“When you have that kind of player, you really kind of become a little more one-dimensional,” Donovan said. “They are a complete team that probably has a chance to do a little more this season because there’s going to be a lot more balance to their team.”
UNC-Wilmington (2-1) also has faced Florida, losing 77-60 on Nov. 12 as part of the Global Sports Invitational that also includes the Buckeyes, Morehead State and North Carolina A&T.
The Seahawks have bounced back with a pair of tight victories. They blew a 14-point halftime lead against Liberty on Tuesday but won 69-64 in overtime, then got 17 points and 14 rebounds from junior guard Trevor Deloach in a 60-58 victory over Morehead State on Thursday.
“We’d have never won this game if we’d have caved in (Tuesday),” first-year coach Buzz Peterson said. “We gained some confidence from that.”
Ohio State and UNC-Wilmington have never met.