Why Ohio State's Jared Sullinger Should Return for His Junior Year

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2012

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 29: Jared Sullinger #0 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates with fans after the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Value City Arena on November 29, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Duke 85-63. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The end of the Big Ten regular season moves underclass stars like Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger one step closer to decision time on declaring for the NBA draft.

Although he turned in a fine performance in capturing a share of the conference title yesterday—14 points and 10 boards in a win at Michigan State—Sullinger would still be better served by spending another year in school than by jumping to the pros after his sophomore campaign.

At first glance, it may seem counter-intuitive that Sullinger needs another year of outplaying college-level power forwards. After all, he’s routinely listed among the top five players in the country even in what’s seen as a down year for him, and he already has one of the nation’s most polished skill sets.

Even so, a couple of key factors make another year in Columbus the smarter move for Sullinger, not to mention the far preferable one where the Buckeyes and their fans are concerned.

For one thing, Ohio State’s chances for a championship run look appreciably better heading into next year than they did to start this season (let alone after the team’s Big Ten struggles). After 2010-11, the Buckeyes lost three seniors from a rotation that only went seven deep to begin with.

At the end of this season, should Sullinger stay on campus, the only likely departure will be senior guard William Buford, and this year’s deeper bench will be better equipped to absorb the extra minutes when (presumably) Jordan Sibert steps into Buford’s starting spot.

Even more importantly, Sullinger’s 2011-12 performance has cast some serious doubts on his NBA readiness. He’s been plagued by fouls, averaging just over 3.5 per game in Big Ten play (where the officiating usually makes it harder to get in foul trouble, not easier).

He’s also struggled noticeably in some key games (including losses at Michigan and Indiana), and didn’t always show the kind of leadership or consistency you’d like to see from a player of his talent.

Unless Ohio State pulls it together and wins the national championship this season—and even if they land a No. 1 seed, that’s an iffy proposition—Sullinger needs another year as a team leader to prove that he’s ready to step up in pressure situations.

With the experienced team he’ll have around him, Sullinger has a real chance to lead the Buckeyes to the 2013 title and enter the NBA with an exclamation point (a la Kemba Walker) rather than a question mark.