Ohio State All-America forward Jared Sullinger still can't forgive himself. And he still can't help wondering: What if he had not missed the Buckeyes' game at Kansas?
Sullinger missed the then-No. 2 Buckeyes' nationally televised showdown at Kansas on Dec. 10 because of back spasms, and he watched helplessly from the bench as the Jayhawks won, 78-67, and handed Ohio State its first loss of the season.
With the two teams set to meet in a rematch in the Final Four on Saturday night, Sullinger is determined to show what Kansas missed seeing in December.
"There is extra motivation for me," Sullinger, a powerful 6-foot-9, 265-pound sophomore said on Tuesday. "I felt like I let the team down. When that final buzzer went off and we got done shaking hands, I walked off the court like all the weight was on my shoulders.
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"I felt like I could have helped the team overcome the 10-point leads ... the times when we had it down to four points, and we had a turnover or didn't score a basket. I felt like everything was my fault. I'll take that as a little bit of motivation going into New Orleans and getting ready to play Kansas."
Sullinger, who has averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, had been ruled out of the Kansas game — the second of three starts he did not make — before the Buckeyes arrived at Allen Fieldhouse.
But when Sullinger saw the festive, pregame atmosphere, he asked Coach Thad Matta to reconsider when the team was in the locker room.
"He got caught up in the euphoria," Matta said. "I still don't think I've ever seen anything like that when we went out there ... it was a unique, unique experience.
"He's a winner, he's a great teammate and he wanted to be a part of it. That was our first loss of the season ... from that standpoint, I'm sure he was a little bit dejected, but by the same token, hopefully, it motivates him Saturday night."
While Sullinger was in street clothes, Kansas forward Thomas Robinson scored 21 points on seven-of-nine shooting and collected seven rebounds.
"He's a great basketball player ... he's been through a lot," Sullinger said of Robinson's dealing with the loss of his mother and two grandparents last year. "If anyone deserves this moment, it's him."
Despite losing, Sullinger believed the Buckeyes benefited from his absence. Junior Evan Ravenel, a transfer from Boston College, gained valuable experience in starting for Sullinger; and 6-11 freshman Amir Williams got some valuable playing time, which paid off in Big Ten games and as recently as in the Elite Eight win over Syracuse when he scored three points, blocked two shots and pulled down four rebounds in nine minutes.
Matta doesn't believe there will be any carryover for either team when they meet again on Saturday night.
"They have made, as we have, the natural progression ...," Matta said. "Everybody has gotten a little bit better, everybody has gotten a little bit tougher, everybody understands the system they're playing better now.
"A lot like us, Coach (Bill) Self has those guys rolling in the right direction. They appear to have great confidence and poise out there."