Jared Sullinger has been a marked man all season after some services tabbed the 6-8 post man as the nation’s top junior. His team, Columbus Northland, also is under the microscope heading into the postseason as the state’s No. 1-ranked team in Division I following last Saturday’s City League title game.
Columbus Northland went into Saturday’s City League title game healthy, confident and as the top-ranked team in Ohio at the Division I level. Columbus Eastmoor Academy, however, didn’t seem to care.
The Warriors, who were bombed by Northland in last year’s city championship, returned to the same court at Columbus Mifflin High School and gave the Vikings all they could handle. Point guard Trey Burke was slowed down and roughed around. Dynamic wing man J.D. Weatherspoon repeatedly was cut off on the drive. Off-guard Dimonde Hale and power forward Javon Cornley, a pair of wiley seniors, struggled to finish plays through contact.
However, Eastmoor had no answer for center Jared Sullinger, which put the Warriors on an endless list of opponents.
The 6-8, 240-pound Sullinger showed his complete game by scoring in the low post, finding open teammates, rooting inside for offensive putbacks, cleaning up the glass and redirecting shots on the defensive end, and outletting the ball for opportunity breaks. When the smoke had cleared the Vikings had survived with a 62-56 victory and Sullinger had recorded 31 points and 23 rebounds along with his third City League title in as many tries.
“It means a lot,” said Sullinger, an Ohio State commitment who is considered by some services to be the top junior in the entire country. “We’ve just got to come out and play hard every chance we get. Today we kind of came out sluggish, but we bounced back in the second half and played really well. I’ve got to give Eastmoor the utmost respect for playing the way they played.
“It’s going to help a lot, because going further and further there are going to be a lot of teams that do what Eastmoor did.”
That is almost a given. The Vikings (19-1) have too much athleticism overall and too much strength inside with Sullinger for just about every team in the state. However, they looked mortal playing before a packed-in throng at Mifflin as Eastmoor Academy (14-6) was overly physical throughout and hit several deep shots, including a multitude of threes from senior point guard Alexander Coleman and sophomore backcourt mate Ron Tanner.
“They’re a good shooting teams and we had to expect that,” said Northland coach Satch Sullinger, Jared’s father. “Our thing was we were giving up too many second shots and we were breaking down doing what we do, but a lot of that had to do with Eastmoor. Eastmoor is a good team.
“This is an awesome, awesome thing. Not once did we take this for granted. The kids have played hard, Eastmoor played hard. It just happens to be our time, but I think both teams have represented the city well.”
The Warriors were red-hot in the second quarter and went to halftime with a 34-33 lead and the gym in a frenzy. The only shot Sullinger took in the final three minutes of the period was his 85-foot heave at the halftime buzzer that seemed to scrape the rafters and hit just left of the square on the backboard.
At the start of the second half, the junior big man served notice of his determination – and displayed his deft touch in traffic – by scoring three straight baskets down in the post to put Northland back in control at 39-34.
“That was by design,” Coach Sullinger said. “When they came back, Jared didn’t touch the ball, I don’t think, the last eight possessions we had. You’ve got to ride your aircraft carrier.”
“Being down at the half is something we almost never have to deal with,” Jared said, “and I just came out with this fire like, ‘I have to take over this game.’ Not that I as being selfish. I just felt like it was my game to take over.”
The Vikings had a hard time pulling away, though, and also turned the free-throw line into an adventure.
“Free throws are a concern for us,” Satch said. “But let me say this to you about free throws: You practice them but you don’t put any special pressure on them because all it does is get worse. All we know it we give them opportunities to practice. Now it’s the 6 inches between their ears.”
The Vikings, who won a district title in 2007, but bowed out early in the sectional last year after blowing through the regular season undefeated, are going to be tested again. They head to the postseason with reason to believe they are the team to beat but with a full understanding of how difficult it may be to reach the mountaintop.
Having the nation’s top junior only puts more of a spotlight on the situation, especially considering his father held him out of a playoff game last season for academic reasons and the Vikings ended up losing to Westerville South.
“There isn’t a lot of pressure this year for me personally, but as a team we had a lot of pressure,” Jared admitted. “Last year we felt we should have gone farther than we did and I messed up. This year there’s no mess up, there’s not going to be any interruptions, and we’re going to come out and play our best.”
Sullinger showed Saturday that he is intent to back his words.
“He’s focused,” Satch said. “He takes last year kind of personal and he feels like he owes the team a whole lot. I said, ‘You don’t owe anybody anything, you’re just growing up.’ But he’s played as hard as he can this year, for the right reasons. You never can pay back. All you can do is pay ahead.”
However, Jared still sounded like he was seeking atonement this postseason.
“I think all that fire, all that emotion, I put it every day into my workouts and every game,” he said of last year’s disappointment. “I still think about that day. I just get a little teary-eyed when I think about that day and how I let my four seniors down. I’ll never do that again. Never. I don’t care where I’m at or what my goals are. I will never let the upper classmen down.”
After playing a brutal schedule this season, the Vikings feel they are playoff-ready.
“We’re into one-and-done season so are guys are hungry and they want to go as far as they’re capable of going,” Satch said. “The sky is the limit for us as long as we keep our focus and do what we need to do.”
Satch has done more situational coaching this season in search of depth and flexibility. In the City League championship, for example, he sat Cornley for the entire second period because of foul trouble and subbed out the 6-6 Weatherspoon at times down the stretch for particular defensive possessions.
“We have rotations and different things have different needs,” he said. “It’s all about team, and J.D. understands that. But you see who’s on the floor at the end of the game.”
Coach Sullinger also called on reserve guard Jordan Potts to relieve Burke or play with him in the backcourt when Eastmoor pressed. Potts, who is just a freshman, came through with solid play on both ends of the court, including late in the game.
“Jordan is part of the rotation,” Satch said. “We’ve developed him and he’s that extra ball handler we need. You can take Trey out now or we’ll put him in and Trey becomes the two and he becomes the one. So we’re not the same team we were early on.”
Added Jared, “Going into the postseason we must have a backup guard and we must have somebody back up Trey, and as you can see Trey fouled out today. It was either go with Jordan or we might just go with Dimonde, which would force me to handle the ball. But I’m glad we found Jordan because I think Jordan is a perfect fit for us.”
Once again, Jared has led the Vikings to another outstanding regular season even though a couple red flags were raised when they lost earlier in the month at Canton Timken. Now the microscope tightens a bit.
“The majority of the season so far has gone exactly like we expected,” Satch said. “We didn’t put our emphasis on going undefeated; we put the focus on winning the last game of the season.”
Step one will come Wednesday night at New Albany High School as Northland takes on what appears to be an undermanned Pataskala Watkins Memorial squad.
“We got to come ready to play because Watkins Memorial could come out just as hot as Eastmoor,” Jared said. “You look at the scores and see they struggled with South, they struggled with West. But the reality is we’re playing them and it doesn’t matter who we play, they’re going to come out and give us their best because we’ve got that target on our chest.”