Jared Sullinger is used to winning in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Since coming to Ohio State a year and a half ago, he has yet to lose at home. Even serious challenges by visiting teams—both in and out of the Big Ten—are fairly far and few between.
The biggest threat to Sully’s undefeated mark came Tuesday night.
With the game in serious doubt down the stretch, the Buckeyes’ All-American was forced to the sideline. If they were going to avoid losing for the first time at home in two years, the Buckeyes would have to do it without Sullinger in the game’s crucial moments.
Ohio State survived the test, holding on for an 87-84 win over Purdue.
The Buckeyes’ were caught up in a tense back-and-forth contest with the Boilermakers for most of the second half. With the exception of one possession, neither team held a lead of more than three through the first fifteen minutes after halftime.
With just under seven minutes to play, Sullinger picked up a bad fourth foul, trying to hedge out on Lewis Jackson beyond the three-point line. It was his second foul in less than a minute, and forced Thad Matta to remove him for several minutes.
Aaron Craft had already been forced to the bench two minutes prior, so the Buckeyes were without arguably their two most important players for an extended, crucial stretch.
William Buford became the go-to-guy during this time.
Buford—the Buckeyes’ only senior—proved he is fine in that role. He scored 21 in the second half and made three straight shots with under five minutes to go. The last shot was a three-pointer to put OSU up by seven.
The nervous Buckeye crowd got really loud for the first time all night.
While somewhat unexpected, the situation that presented itself to Ohio State provided them a chance to prove that they can handle late-game pressure situations without Sullinger and Craft.
With a huge game against Michigan State on Saturday, OSU could possibly face a similar situation.
Michigan State is the most physical team in the Big Ten, and they won’t be afraid to repeatedly challenge Sullinger on the offensive end. The Spartans could get him in foul trouble again and force OSU to lean more on DeShaun Thomas—who scored 13 against Purdue—inside and Buford outside.
Looking beyond the upcoming Michigan State game, the winner of which will hold the top spot in the Big Ten, Ohio State has a very difficult road to the league’s regular-season title.
The Buckeyes will go on a tricky two-game trip to play away at Minnesota and Michigan, respectively. After that, two of their final three games are against Wisconsin in Columbus and a rematch with Michigan State in East Lansing.
Each of those games will play a big role in deciding who finishes at the top of the league.
With the tough schedule ahead, Ohio State should count on playing more contentious minutes in close games down the stretch. It’s likely that the Buckeyes won’t be at full strength for all of those minutes.
The experience gained against Purdue should help Ohio State deal with those tough situations a bit better, potentially meaning the difference between a win and a loss.
That, ultimately, could be what helps them clinch a Big Ten title.