February 7, 2011

Teams getting physical with Sullinger

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Thad Matta saw it coming a few weeks ago. That's why he reached out to the North Carolina basketball staff in search of advice.

As Matta witnessed opposing teams attempting - and failing - to contain freshman big man Jared Sullinger in the recent weeks, the head coach also noticed the propensity to foul him has grown.

The fouling frequency reminded Matta of what teams attempted with former Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough, who earned a reputation as one of the more physical post players in recent years.

"I think those two players a very similar in the way they play and the way they get to the basket," Matta said.

Just like teams were forced to do with Hansbrough - who left North Carolina as the all-time leader in college basketball history made free throws - fouling Sullinger seems like the only logical thing left for teams to do.

On the surface it seems as if opposing teams had only two options when attempting to guard the 6-foot-9, 280-pounder: they could either double-team him or leave single coverage on him to focus on guarding the perimeter. Neither have worked.

That's why a third option has recently surfaced. Teams have no turned to fouling as a way to try and slow the freshman down, making him work harder than ever to get to the rim as a scorer and bring down rebounds.

"I think that's obviously an approach," Matta said. "I think that they say, 'Let's be as rough and as physical as we can.' There's no doubt about that."

Matta publicly talked about the new approach after Ohio State's close win over Michigan last week in Value City Arena, perhaps one of the more physical games Sullinger has been through.

The game reminded Matta of what one Big Ten coach told him after former 7-foot bg man Greg Oden left Ohio State for the NBA.

"It's like a Big Ten coach told me after Oden left: 'We told our guys, foul him every single time. They won't call every one,"' Matta recalled.

Not that Michigan was overly physical with Sullinger, but it was quite apparent that the Wolverines weren't going to waste fouls on petty, harmless contact.

Sullinger found himself on the floor more than usual against the Wolverines and attempts at the basket usually were met with slaps to the arm or strong body contact on the way up.

"That happens a lot," said junior William Buford on team's playing physical on Sullinger. "He keeps his composure and plays through it and always finds a way to get the job done."

Though it may cause for longer trips in the ice tub for Sullinger after games, the third strategy in stopping Sullinger has yet to work, either.

In the Michigan game Sullinger found a way to score 19 points and grab 13 rebounds. Most recently against Minnesota - perhaps the most post-oriented team in the conference - the freshman scored another 18 and posted 13 more boards while helping the Buckeyes (24-0, 11-0 Big Ten) stay perfect on the season.

"He can handle it. Jared is a big monster down there and you can't really stop him," Buford said. "I don't think if you put two people on him you can really stop him. So you have to send people who just hack him all day."

Aside from worrying about the safety and health of his star big man, Matta is actually just fine with opposing teams fouling the freshman.

Why? Because that's just more fouls stacking up against the opposition, putting Ohio State in the double-bonus quicker, resulting in even more trips to the free throw line.

"No, not at all," Matta answered when asked if he had a problem with the frequency in fouling. "He has had games where he has shot 20 free throws, or pretty close to it.

"The big thing is, it is fouls on people. It is a double-bonus quicker. We have always prided ourselves in not fouling. We are really unique in the way we play."

Sullinger was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week Monday for the 11th time of the season, even with being beaten up a tad bit more.

As far as Matta and the rest of the team is concerned, opposing teams may need to come up with a fourth strategy on how to stop perhaps the most dynamic player in the conference.

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.


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