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Despite flaws, Jared Sullinger leads Ohio State

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has been criticized this seaseven though his numbers haven’t changed all thmuch. | Gregory Shamus~Getty Images

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has been criticized this season even though his numbers haven’t changed all that much. | Gregory Shamus~Getty Images

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Updated: April 22, 2012 10:13AM

Pardon Ohio State coach Thad Matta if he looked a little confused by some of the questions after the Buckeyes beat Gonzaga 73-66 to advance to the Sweet 16. But sometimes perception is in the eye of the beholder.

Jared Sullinger’s 18 points in 26 foul-limited minutes against the Bulldogs is a good example. The half-empty view is that Sullinger sat for a big chunk of the game. The half-full view is that he made two three-pointers for Ohio State’s first six points, then made two tough low-post baskets after Gonzaga tied the game 61-61.

Asked about wanting the ball in his 6-9 sophomore’s hands with the game on the line even though it obviously ‘‘wasn’t one of his best days,’’ Matta politely made his point.

‘‘With the foul trouble and sitting as much as he did there in the first half, it would appear that he didn’t have a great day,’’ Matta said. ‘‘But he hit his first two threes and really stretched them. And down the stretch, we wanted to get the ball in his hands.’’

This illustrates at least two points. One: Fouls or not, getting stuffed or not — as Sullinger did when he had a shot rejected before succeeding down low — Sullinger is Ohio State’s bell cow.

Two: The perception of Sullinger has changed a lot in the last year.

A year ago, he was a sensation, the Big Ten and national freshman of the year, a worthy challenger to Big Ten player of the year JaJuan Johnson.

This year, he again is first-team All-Big Ten, but Michigan State’s Draymond Green earned the Big Ten MVP that seemed in Sullinger’s sights.

They’re both going to collect their share of first-team All-America hardware by the time all the polls close. But this spring, the focus seems to be on Sullinger’s flaws, rather than his strengths.

Part of that is a function of home losses against Wisconsin and Michigan State in February, defeats that left the Buckeyes sharing the Big Ten title even though they were a top-10 team all season. Part of that is a function of Sullinger not having Jon Diebler’s three-point bombs creating room in the paint.

And part of it is just the ebb and flow of sports. We see the strengths in newcomers. And then we start looking for flaws.

That’s why Sullinger, who might have been a top-five NBA pick if he had turned pro after his freshman year, might not be a top-10 pick this summer. Barring a surprise, this will be his last college season.

His numbers haven’t really changed. After averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds a year ago, Sullinger is at 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds.

Pro scouts debate his NBA potential. A lock to move from center to power forward, he’s well-equipped to handle outside shooting in the NBA. Putting the ball on the floor and guarding people are the questions that won’t go away.

Sullinger can make a statement, though, by finishing with a flourish. Ohio State, making its third consecutive Sweet 16 trip, will try to reach the Elite Eight against Cincinnati on Thursday for the first time since Greg Oden led it to the national championship game in 2007.

That’s partly about being a team guy, as Sullinger showed when he rode the bench against Gonzaga.

‘‘That’s when I take the basketball jersey off and put on the pompons and start cheerleading for the guys,’’ he said, adding that he knew his assignment when he got back in the game. ‘‘I just wanted to score. I knew that throwing my body and creating contact wasn’t going to work in this game. So I went with a little finesse and tried to go up and finish.’’

Even if the Sullinger hype has declined, his importance as the key to the Buckeyes has not.

‘‘He’s a winner,’’ Matta said. ‘‘We’ll ride that down the stretch.’’

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