Jared Sullinger led the Buckeyes with 21 points and 16 rebounds against the Wildcats Friday night. This season, he was named the Big Ten freshman of the year and an All-American. He said the loss to Kentucky motivates him to return for another season.NEWARK — Those were the words that all the members of the basketball branch of the Buckeye Nation most wanted to hear. In the period of despair and abject disappointment that followed Friday night's loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Ohio State really needed some good news.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
They got it well after the clock had swept into Saturday morning when junior William Buford and freshman Jared Sullinger, both considered likely candidates for early departure to the NBA, said they will be back at Ohio State for another season.
"I'll be back," Buford said after first sounding indecisive in the highly emotional climate immediately following the game, which was played at the Prudential Center.
"I just want to get better, so when I do go, I'll be prepared to make an impact and not just go to be a player in the league."
Just a couple of weeks ago, Buford was noncommittal about the prospects of him jumping to the NBA a year early, saying he would talk it over with his coaches and his family once the season ended. But it appears the time has passed and possibly the feeling of unfinished business has brought some clarity to Buford's plan.
"From where we just ended, this isn't where I wanted to end it," said Buford, who had his worst shooting night of the season in the loss to Kentucky, hitting just 2-of-16.
Sullinger, named the Big Ten freshman of the year, first-team all-conference, and an All-American after dominating the area around the basket this season, was a double-double machine who was generating talk of another "one-and-done" Buckeyes big man as far back as December. Sullinger had a 40-point game against IUPUI on Dec. 9, setting a record for an Ohio State freshman.
Early Saturday morning, he was more emphatic than Buford in his response to queries about next season, and Sullinger repeated his intentions numerous times in the lengthy postgame interview session that followed the 62-60 loss to the Wildcats. Sullinger led Ohio State with 21 points and 16 rebounds against Kentucky.
"I'm coming back next year," Sullinger said. "I'm coming back next year because I have to work on a lot of things and I don't like the taste of what just happened. I don't appreciate losing. I never appreciate losing. I want to come back to win."
The early exit has been a painfully familiar route for the Buckeyes' faithful. Ohio State lost national player of the year Evan Turner after last season when he was just a junior. Turner became the second pick in the NBA draft.
In recent years Ohio State has also lost standouts such as Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Kosta Koufas, B.J. Mullen, and Daequan Cook — all after just one year of play in Columbus.
Sullinger, who drew an array of double and triple teams throughout the season and the tournament as teams tried to cope with his size, strength, and mobility, said the loss to Kentucky left him more certain than ever about returning to Ohio State in 2011-12.
"I'm going to be here, in an Ohio State uniform next year," he said. "I don't like the look in people's eyes, and I didn't like the taste we had in our mouths. I'm a man of my word. I won't change my mind for nobody. This is what I want. This is where I'm happy. I'm happy being an Ohio State Buckeye and playing for coach [Thad] Matta."
Matta said he sees Sullinger developing into an even bigger force next year for the Buckeyes.
"I think all the things he learned this year, with a great offseason, I have no doubt he'll be the best player in college basketball," Matta said.
Buford, who was a McDonald's All-American and the winner of the state's Mr. Basketball award as a senior at Libbey, was a three-time City League player of the year and averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds in his final season with the Cowboys.
At Ohio State, Buford was the Big Ten freshman of the year and honorable mention all-conference in his first year, third team all-Big Team as a sophomore, and second team this season. He averaged 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game this season, hitting 48 percent of his shots.
"I love these guys, and I don't want it to end," he said after the Buckeyes closed their season at 34-3.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.