Jared Sullinger, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound sledgehammer from Columbus, Ohio, insists softness has no place in his family. "No one ever cries," he says. "It isn't allowed."
To his recollection, the rule has only been broken once. It was March 19, 2006, the night Ohio State lost to Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Afterward Jared's oldest brother, J.J.,left the Buckeyes locker room for the last time. The first person to console him was his 11-month-old son, Jalen, followed by his parents, Satch and Barbara. Tears welled in his eyes when he received Jared, an eighth grader at the time. "If Ohio State's staff gives you a scholarship," J.J. told Jared, "you take it."
Little brother wasted no time heeding his advice. He committed 10 months later, taking the direct route to campus his brother was never offered as a prep star. In 2002, J.J. had wanted to attend Ohio State, but then-coach Jim O'Brien never offered him a scholarship. Arkansas did, and Sullinger incorporated his Buckeye fandom in his Razorbacks uniform, wearing No. 0 -- which doubled as an ode to Ohio. When Nolan Richardson was fired, Sullinger transferred to Ohio State. He redshirted a year and played under O'Brien one season before the coach was dismissed. There was an immediate change in atmosphere when Thad Matta took over. Whereas O'Brien had to draw a map for his players to come to his house the night he was fired, Matta opened his doors immediately. "There were pool parties in his backyard," says Sullinger's father, who coaches Jared at North Cumberland High. "Thad Matta had them all jumping in."
Matta made Columbus attractive to his players then, and has extended the courtesy to prospects since. The former Xavier coach managed to close the borders over the past year -- keeping Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon in state -- while poaching Deshaun Thomas from Indiana and Lenzelle Smith from Illinois. In all, they form the nation's top recruiting class.
Sullinger -- the nation's No. 3 recruit according to Rivals.com -- stands out for his physicality and single-minded focus. His approach to post play is simple ("no finesse for nobody") and draws inspiration from his father, a 60-year-old sociology teacher. "I tell my boys if you get your foot on someone's throat, make sure you touch the floor," he says. "The moment you lighten up, you lose."
Footwork was foremost in Jared's development. If his positioning wasn't perfect, his father said "his hands would be unemployed." He chased rebounds from all angles and scored off putbacks. During an AAU game two years ago, Sullinger struggled to shed Westchester Hawk defenders. He pouted on the bench after one possession and Rogers told him to get his points off the offensive glass. Down six with two minutes left, the Red rallied and Sullinger tipped a ball in to force overtime. "He's the next big-time American big man," says one NBA assistant coach who previously recruited Sullinger.
All-Ohio Red satisfied nearly all its objectives on the AAU circuit the last three summers, going 201-9, collecting 29 titles out of 33 tournaments entered, including three national titles in Orlando at summer's end. The biggest loss, though, was that of Sibert, a slashing wing whose left fibula and tibia snapped after jumping for a rebound and landing in a scrum at the Boo Williams Invitational final in May. Even in Sibert's absence, the Red rolled to their capstone championship win in July.
Toughness is a common thread running throughout the class. Craft, the group's 6-0, 179-pound glue guy, played quarterback for Liberty Benton High the last three years but gave up football after switching his verbal from Tennessee to Ohio State last June. Without the pads he secured a reputation for grit as he collected assists and floor burns at a similar clip. "It's just skin, you know?" Craft said after a recent face-first dive and tap pass to Weatherspoon. "It'll grow back. No need to keep it pretty."
In late June, Sullinger set up to defend former Buckeye star Greg Oden in a pick-up game on campus. The 7-foot Portland Trailblazer backed his Buckeye successor down in the paint. "All of a sudden I look up and I'm under the rim," says Sullinger.
Oden finished with a dunk and told him to keep working. "If Jared and this group follows Greg's lead, I'd shed a tear in a second," Sullinger's father says. "I don't want to see any of that woe-is-me crying while struggling, but I'd cry out of pride for my boys."