2012 was one crazy year in the wild wacky world of Cleveland Sports. Some would tell you 2012 was as bad as it has ever been here. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last four years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the 10 biggest sports stories affecting our local sports scene. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one.
10. The Ohio State Buckeyes Reach the Final Four
I’ll always remember the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes as an immensely talented team that had all the tools to go the distance and nearly did so. Your tenth biggest story of the year is Thad Matta leading the Buckeyes to their second Final Four under him and the 11th in school history. The Buckeyes got there by capturing a number two seed after a 25-6 regular season that included a share of the Big Ten regular season title with Michigan and Michigan State. They also reached the Big Ten Championship game, falling to Michigan State in their third matchup of the season 68-64 after having beaten them in East Lansing just seven days prior to claim their share of the conference crown.
The Buckeyes dispatched of 15th seeded Loyola Maryland in the tourney opener with relative ease 78-59. Deshaun Thomas led the team in scoring with a career-high 31 points, the start of what would be a magical tournament for both Deshaun and the Bucks.
The next day, I had this to say:
Thomas was a one-man zone-buster. The sophomore forward made things happen from elbow to elbow in the top half of the paint, hitting shots and grabbing offensive boards. “I was just knocking them down, I was feeling it,” Thomas said. Thomas has scored 19 or more in 7 of the last 9 games, and if the Buckeyes get that Deshaun Thomas, it takes pressure off Sullinger and makes the Buckeyes more diverse and more likely to stick around for a while. The relative ease with which Thomas can get shots, both inside and outside, makes him more of a go-to option than Sullinger when the First Team All-Big Ten center has a physical defender. The Buckeyes had 38 points in the paint, and Thomas was the leader in that area.
In the next round, some analysts had picked Ohio State to lose or at least put Ohio State on notice that a physical team with 7-footer Robert Sacre and the seventh seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs would not go down easily. As a matter of fact, they didn’t, but again, it was Aaron Craft who elevated his game with a double-double and shutdown one of the Bulldogs’ biggest threats in point guard Kevin Pangos. Sullinger, however, had the biggest bucket of the game.
I had my doubts, hoping the Bucks would go back to Craft and Thomas, but Sullinger did come through. Matta on his big man, “He’s a winner. We’ll ride that down the stretch.” And ride it they did, with Sullinger scoring 6 points in the final three and a half minutes. The final one and perhaps the most crucial basket of the game, involved Sullinger turning middle against one defender and then spinning to the baseline side, finishing over top of the taller Sacre for the hoop. It gave the Buckeyes a five-point lead with just under a minute to go, and it put them in the driver’s seat.
As the Bucks advanced to their fourth Sweet 16 in eight seasons under Matta, many had thought the third-seeded Florida State Seminoles would advance over the Bucks. The only problem being that they didn’t advance past the sixth-seed Cincinnati Bearcats. This setup an in-state showdown among two teams that rarely play. The Bearcats gave the Bucks all they could handle before the Buckeyes pulled away very late, winning 81-66 and making it to their 14th Elite Eight in team history.
Cincy did not go quietly, however, and made a tremendous run to start the second half. Coach Mick Cronin switched back to their primary man-to-man defense, and the Bucks offense stalled. They turned it over five times in the stretch where UC took the lead, and the Bearcats got four buckets off those turnovers. The Buckeye transition defense was poor, and the only three buckets during the first eight minutes of the half were from Jared Sullinger. Deshaun Thomas had been effectively silenced by the switch back to man. Before you could blink, the Bearcats had completely wiped out their double digit defecit and had built a lead of their own. Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick got hot from behind the arc, each providing 8 points in the Bearcats surge, and they hit six straight shots at one point. Sullinger said about the opening of the first half, “We’ve got two types of basketball teams: We’ve got the cool guys and then the blue collar guys. I thought to start the second half we got into the cool guy mode and we kind of let our guard down.”
The win setup a top two seed battle between OSU and Syracuse, which had lost just twice on the season but was missing a key cog. Center and current Boston Celtic Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the tournament, which took away a menacing shot blocker and physical defender from the Orange attack. The Bucks took it 77-70 on the backs of their big men. (Future Cavaliers Dion Waiters fouled out of that game, shooting just 2-of-8 and finishing with 9 points.)
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.
It was a program-enhancing win and one of the most entertaining games in my OSU basketball lifetime. Sullinger had achieved the goal he set out to when he returned for his sophomore season. Heartbreak came the next Saturday night as the Bucks blew a 13-point first half lead against TD’s Jayhawks to fall 64-62 in what was another thrilling tournament moment.
In the first half, the Buckeyes were in complete control and the Kansas Jayhawks had no answer for their shot-making and defensive ferocity. The problem? The Buckeyes’ momentum and edge stayed in the halftime locker room as the Jayhawks came back from 13 down to pull out a 64-62 victory to advance to the Championship Game Monday night against the Kentucky Wildcats in New Orleans. The Bucks shot just 24% in the second half and their dynamic post duo of Sullinger and Thomas shot a combined 8-for-33 from the field. The Buckeyes were offensively ineffective for the last half of the game, and because of it, Kansas seized the momentum and were able to make more plays late. Ohio State had this game won, and yet they’re going home. That’s the hardest part to swallow out of all of this.
The Jayhawks would go on to lose the title game to the unstoppable force that was Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and the Kentucky Wildcats. Ohio State finished 31-8 on the season and said goodbye to Sullinger and Buford. The team in its newest incarnation has three returning starters from this team in Craft, Smith Jr., and Thomas, and they’re currently ranked seventh in the nation, set to fall slightly after Saturday’s home loss to the Kansas Jayhawks, of course. The Buckeyes have become what is hopefully a permanent fixture in the top programs in college basketball under Matta, and the Big Ten is better for it.
Stay tuned later today for #9 on the countdown!
(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images, Jim Rogash/Getty Images)