COLUMBUS, Ohio - There were a lot of people who thought Jared Sullinger was the best player in the country a year ago.
Then he went out and got better.
Sullinger, the 6-foot-9 Columbus Northland post player, has the numbers to back that contention. That's one reason why he repeated as the Ohio Associated Press Mr. Basketball in 2010, the unanimous choice of a state media panel. He's only the fifth player to win the state's top individual award at least twice.
"This year was a lot different," Sullinger said earlier this week while in Atlanta to receive the Naismith Award for the national player of the year. "I was more explosive. I was lighter in weight, and that helped me out in my game."
Not only did the Ohio State signee average 24.5 points and 12.3 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 2.4 assists game while shooting 78 percent from the field, 38 percent on 3-pointers and 77 percent at the line. He also led Northland to a regular-season AP poll title. The Vikings were ranked No. 1 in the USA Today national rankings before a stunning upset loss to unbeaten Gahanna Lincoln in a regional championship game on Saturday night.
"It's very disappointing," he said. "We worked so hard to get where we were. But Gahanna played a great game. It hurts, but at the same time, God always has a plan for you."
So did Sullinger's father and coach, Satch Sullinger. He suspended Jared for a tournament game as a sophomore because he wasn't paying enough attention to his schoolwork. Northland lost. Now Jared is an honor-roll student.
"He had a great year," the elder Sullinger said. "He rebounded extremely well, he made our defense that much better. He encouraged the underclassmen and he always had something good to say to them. He was a tremendous leader."
Jared is the youngest of three brothers, and the other two were high school and college stars, J.J. at Ohio State and Arkansas, Julian at Kent State.
A year ago, Jared averaged 19.9 points and 14.8 rebounds while shooting 67 percent from the field for a team that won the AP's regular-season poll and then followed up by winning the state championship.
Along with Deshaun Thomas from Fort Wayne, Ind., Lenzelle Smith of Zion, Ill., Northland teammate J.D. Weatherspoon, Findlay Liberty-Benton point guard Aaron Craft and Jordan Sibert of Cincinnati Princeton, Sullinger is part of what many consider the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, heading to Ohio State.
Sullinger is already savoring the challenge.
"It's going to be really exciting," he said. "We have three people who played on the same AAU team (Sullinger, Thomas, Smith), so we've grown really close off the court. It's a dynamic group of players, but we also have so much fun together."
And Sullinger doesn't head to Ohio State expecting to instantly be a star. He's willing to get on-the-job training, particularly since the Buckeyes return almost everyone from the team playing in the round of 16 this week in St. Louis.
"I look forward to stepping in and doing whatever's asked of me," he said. "If that means sitting on the bench? OK. If it means playing, then great. I'll do anything that needs to be done to make the team successful."
His father doesn't hesitate when asked what his son's biggest and best contribution was to Northland.
"He's a winner. He'll dive on the floor, take a charge, be determined on the glass or guard anyone if that's what it takes to win," he said. "It's all about the team with him. A lot of kids are concerned about stats; all he's concerned about is winning."
Jared gives some of the credit for his success to Michael Jackson. Really.
Asked if there's anything people don't know about him, he said, "Before every game I listen to Michael Jackson, all his top hits. Then we get off the bus and go into the gym and I switch to Jay-Z. And I mostly stick with the slow-beat songs by Michael: 'Man in the Mirror,' 'Dirty Diana,' 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ... and 'Billie Jean.'"
A landslide choice for Mr. Basketball, Sullinger's selection certainly wasn't a "Thriller."
Other multiple winners of the award include three-time winner LeBron James, and two-timers O.J. Mayo, Greg Simpson and Jimmy Jackson.
Others considered for the 2010 award included Craft, Cleveland Benedictine's Cameron Wright, Mark Henninger of Massillon Jackson, Sibert and Paul Honigford of Sugarcreek Garaway. Sullinger will receive a plaque in the shape of Ohio.