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January 24, 2011

Johnson, Sullinger set for clash

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - JaJuan Johnson was just supposed to be a big man.

That's probably what Penn State was thinking just moments before Johnson knocked down an 18-foot, game-winning jumper in the final seconds to send Purdue to a 1-point victory Wednesday.

The guy Thad Matta recently saw on film is a far cry from the skinny kid Ohio State's head coach remembered suiting up for the Boilermakers just three years ago.

Now, regarded as one of the best big men in the nation, Matta has recognized Johnson as perhaps the most complete player in the country.

"You look at his body, and you remember how skinny he was as a freshman, and he has put the right type of muscle on," Matta said of Johnson Monday. "I think his skill set has increased from inside where he has always been really good.

"But then they draw up a game-winner for him at Penn State on a 17-foot jump shot," he continued. "He is just a really complete player and it is great to see just the natural progression he has made."

That's just the type of player the 6-foot-10 senior has been for the No. 12 Boilermakers (16-3, 5-1 Big Ten), who avoided a three-game losing streak because of Johnson's last-second shot that concluded a second half in which the big man scored 17 of his 25 points.

And just in time for No. 1 Ohio State's first matchup with Purdue of the season, Johnson's confidence is soaring. Coming off a three-game stretch in which Johnson scored 80 points, Purdue's big man is playing as well as he ever has.

"JaJuan is very confident," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "I would say that's his last step in his development. He's skilled, he's athletic, he can run, he's coachable, he's fun to be around, he's unselfish, but now, he's confident."

Johnson has made a living terrorizing opposing big men all season, but the senior has done in an expanded way. Johnson not only is getting his points in the interior, but he is knocking down difficult shots away from the basket.

As if that wasn't enough to defend, the senior has sported the ability to face up defenders, put the ball on the floor, and create his own shot while fading away from the basket.

But it just so happens that Ohio State has a big man of their own in freshman Jared Sullinger who could be playing better than anyone else in the country right now, which should make for quite the clash.

If there was ever a time where Sullinger is properly introduced to Big Ten basketball, Tuesday night may be it.

"We have gone against a lot of different big guys," Matta said. "(Johnson) is sort of a collection of them all. From (Florida's) Vernon Macklin, to (Illinois Mike Tisdale), to the guys at Florida State. If you added them all up, he is kind of all those guys in one I think."

The way Sullinger is playing, though, one would have a hard time thinking he could be stopped. And why not? In one of Ohio State's toughest games of the season Saturday on the road at Illinois, the freshman big man scored 27 points and grabbed 16 boards while helping keep the unbeaten Buckeyes perfect.

Sullinger now has swept all but two Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week awards - the other went two went to Ohio State freshmen Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas - and has become a contender for not only the Big Ten player of the year, but also national player of the year.

But the long, mobile, and extremely athletic Purdue senior is standing right beside him, leading the conference in scoring (20.5 points per game), is second in blocked shots (2.1 per game) and fifth in rebounding (7.9 per game).

"The alarming thing about JaJuan is he makes such difficult shots," said Ohio State senior guard Jon Diebler said. "If you watch film and watch him in the games he's played, there are times where he has two hands in his face and he just turns around and shoots it in. he is a great player and he just makes unbelievable shots.

"We know how good he is," Diebler said. "There's a lot of respect for him."

Sullinger has become a popular pick to be Ohio State's next 1-and-done big man, and the freshman has played the part to back that up. Perhaps his best performances have come when Ohio State needs them the most.

Against the Boilermakers on Tuesday night, Sullinger will have yet another chance to display just how good he really is. But this time, Ohio State has a lot more than its perfect record on the line.

Backed by Johnson, Purdue has suffered only one loss in the Big Ten and tomorrow night's game could go a long way in deciding the conference race.

Stopping Johnson seems to be on Sullinger's broad, freshman shoulders. Matta knows slowing down the senior and the rest of the Boilermakers isn't a single man's job.

"It will be a challenge, not only for Jared, but for all of us to guard him."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.

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