From the time I began writing about this team in November, I saw a young Ohio State group very unsure of the team they wanted to be. With that doubt, I also saw loads of untapped potential. All season long, it was a constant struggle to get this team to perform up to its ability. Saturday night, however, The Ohio State Buckeyes realized their potential. They are going to the Final Four for the 11th time. OSU heads to New Orleans on the heels of a 77-70 victorious heavyweight bout with the Syracuse Orange.
The Orange pushed the Buckeyes to the brink, but Ohio State executed against the 2-3 zone, played physical down low at both ends, and hit enough free throws to put the game on ice. The Bucks survived being without their star for 14 minutes of the first half, and Sullinger delivered big-time in the second half to lead his Buckeyes to the second Final Four under Thad Matta. Just as Greg Oden didn’t do it alone in 2007, Sullinger, The Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional, had plenty of help.
I chose to feature Thad Matta in the photo above because of the incredible coaching job he did not just in this game, but all season, navigating this team through some trying times. It would’ve been easy for the Buckeyes to roll over and panic after Sullinger’s 2nd foul (in absolutely no way was that a foul) with 13:42 remaining gave them the rawest of deals. But, the Buckeyes got to the halftime buzzer with a 29-29 tie game because of some key bench performances from their reserve big men, Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams. The two combined for 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks with Sullinger sitting on the bench. Ravenel picked up two fouls as well, so the freshman Williams was called upon for 9 key minutes. To Amir’s credit, the still green big man was not afraid of the moment.
The heralded 2-3 Syracuse zone lived up to its hype, but the prep work that Ohio State put in had a palpable effect. The Buckeyes for the most part were patient and calculated in attacking the zone. As the ‘Cuse continued to extend their zone well past the three-point arc, the Buckeyes relied upon high-low post action to put points on the board. Deshaun Thomas found some creases at the foul line, and the Buckeyes used the offensive glass to clean up some of what they missed. Thomas, the leading scorer in the tournament, had 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting and added 9 rebounds.
The two things that Syracuse used to drive their offense were point guard Scoop Jardine’s dribble penetration and Brandon Triche’s outside shooting. Triche, who did not score in the first half, hit a pair of threes and got to the foul line a fair share for 15 second half points. Jardine was able to get by Craft more than a couple times and the second line of defense did little to stop Jardine and the other Orange guards from laying it in. Syracuse has a ton of talent, but the Buckeye defense held Kris Joseph to 4-for-11 shooting and 10 points and Dion Waters to 2-for-8 shooting for 9 points.
As much of a travesty as Sullinger’s second foul was against the Buckeyes, Syracuse was called for 12 first half fouls compared to 6 for OSU. It was enough to eventually get Jim Boeheim hot for a technical foul early in the second half as the fouls piled up for Syracuse much more than for Ohio State. In the second half, things got worse as every cough and sneeze was a whistle and both teams were in the bonus before the under-12 timeout. The Orange were hitting their free throws at a much better clip than OSU too. At one point, Ohio State had hit just 14-of-23 attempts from the line, while Syracuse had hit 14-for-16.
When it seemed the Buckeyes needed a bucket most, it was the fifth option, the sophomore guard that few talk about, Lenzelle Smith Jr. that did it time and again. In the second half, Smith Jr. hit two threes with the shot clock winding down and the offense stalled. But, no bucket may have been bigger than Zelle’s floater from the right side over Rakeem Christmas with 3:15 remaining to give the Bucks a 7-point lead. He did all this with a few stitches above his right eye from an unintentional headbutt from Triche in the first half. In this East regional, Smith Jr. poured in 33 points and answered the bell with two of his best games of the season. Sullinger said of Smith, “Lenzelle had big games before, when we played Indiana and then when we played Michigan. Lenzelle, the bigger the game I think the better he plays.” Matta added, “I think with Lenzelle, as I said the other day, when he’s thinking how do I help this team, good things happen for him. You know, the thing that he’s probably done the best job of is figuring out how to play off of everybody else and finding the seams.” You need glue guys on a Final Four team, and Smith Jr. has proven to be one of those guys when it’s mattered most.
Sullinger bounced back well from sitting for so long to put the team on his back in the second half, proving to be that go-to option despite the attention from inside the heart of the zone. Number zero was a menace on that right block, sinking some high-difficulty shots and marching to the foul line several times. After Deshaun Thomas’s bucket at the 1:47 mark gave Ohio State a 6-point lead, the Orange decided that the Buckeyes would have to win this game at the free-throw line, a terrifying proposition for Buckeye fans who have watched this team yield mixed results from the charity stripe. From that point on, however, the Buckeyes made 13-of-14 foul shots to put this game on ice. The game did not reach the finish without its dramatics, however. First, the ‘Cuse were able to get to the basket with ease as the Buckeye defense softened to avoid fouling. Then, Aaron Craft fouled out with 49 seconds remaining, forcing an ice cold Shannon Scott off the bench to help break the fierce Syracuse pressure. The Buckeyes finished 31-of-42 at the foul line (74%) and won the rebounding battle 39-26, including 14 offensive rebounds. Despite shooting just 41%, Ohio State was able to defend enough to bring home the victory.
After the game, Sullinger let some of his emotions out, showing pride in his team and poking fun of their detractors. Overall, I’m as happy for Jared as I am for anyone on this team. THIS is why he came back for a second year, to get to the Final Four. I wish more kids would commit to their school for more than just one year as Sullinger decided to.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn’t good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all. When we was going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill. We heard negative comments. I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I’m so proud of these guys.”
If there’s anything you can say about the NCAA Tournament, it’s that there’s no guarantees, and the best team seldom wins the whole thing. Last season, the Buckeyes were the favorite, were the best team in my opinion, and had all the tools to win six games. They hit a roadblock in Kentucky and came up four games short. This year’s team has had an easier path and in no way do I think they are the best team, but they’ve been able to take on and dispatch Loyola (MD), Gonzaga, Cincinnati, and now Syracuse by sticking to their team identity of tough defense and offense by committee. There’s two more to go to get to the ultimate goal, but it wouldn’t be fair to gloss over this achievement and not take in what an accomplishment this is for Thad Matta, Jared Sullinger, and company.
Next up, the Buckeyes will play the winner of this afternoon’s North Carolina-Kansas matchup. The Buckeyes went to Lawrence and lost to Kansas without Sullinger in December by 11 points. The Tar Heels, fresh off their scare with Ohio University, are thin in the backcourt unless Kendall Marshall can return from a fractured wrist. Both teams will present a tremendous challenge, but I feel that the Buckeyes can find their way to another victory against either opponent.
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