Final Four Preview

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 03/29/2012 1:33 PM
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Men's Basketball
Starting Five: Ohio State Final Four Preview

By Ben Axelrod

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After completing its run through the NCAA Tournament’s East Region on Saturday with a victory over Syracuse, the No. 2-seed Ohio State men’s basketball team (31-7, 13-5) now turns its attention towards the Final Four, where it will join Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisville.

The Buckeyes’ National semi-finals matchup with the Midwest Region champion Jayhawks (31-6, 16-2) will be an 8:49 p.m. tipoff on Saturday, in a game that can be seen live on CBS.

Basketball School?

Jared Sullinger
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jared Sullinger

With the Buckeyes advancing to their 11th Final Four—during a season in which they won their third-consecutive Big Ten regular season championship—many are wondering if OSU is now just as well known for its basketball as it is its football. A native of Columbus, OSU forward Jared Sullinger knows that basketball overshadowing football in the capital city isn’t likely, but it is still a positive for his hometown, nonetheless.

“Hopefully people don’t say we’re just a football school,” Sullinger said.

“Now they can switch it and say we’re a football and a basketball school, but I doubt that will happen. It’s just a great situation for the city of Columbus.”

Since arriving at Ohio State in 2004, Thad Matta has embraced the football program, rather than use its dominance as an excuse for mediocrity, and said that the benefits of such strategy are evident in its results.

“I’ve always felt that we could have the best of both at Ohio State,” Matta said.

“With all the trials and tribulations that have gone on with football over the past year, I’m elated for the university, probably most importantly, that we have some great things happening.”

’07 All Over Again?

The last time the Buckeyes made the Final Four was five years ago, when each member of the current OSU roster was in either high school or middle school. A high school junior at the time of that team’s run to the National Championship game, OSU guard William Buford said that that Buckeye team helped pave the way for what this year’s team is doing now.

William Buford
Photo by Jim Davidson
William Buford

“It was great, just for the program. I was already committed, so you know I was watching it,” Buford said.

“They had great players and you knew they were hungry. It was just great to see them make it and then for us to be there, it being my last year, it’s just unbelievable.”

Despite achieving similar successes, Matta said that it was difficult to find any similarities between this year’s team, and the one that was led by freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. five years ago.

“They’re completely different.” Matta said. “Not even close in my mind now. I couldn’t even draw the parallel.”

An Unfamiliar Rematch

Aaron Craft
Photo by Jim Davidson
Aaron Craft

Saturday night won’t be the first time that the Buckeyes and Jayhawks have squared off this season, although their Dec. 10 battle in Lawrence, Kan. was hardly a preview for their Final Four Showdown. Between Sullinger not playing due to injury, and changes to each team’s line-up throughout the season, neither OSU nor Kansas seems to be putting much stock in the Jayhawks’ nine-point victory three months ago.

“They’re a much better team than they were when we played,” OSU point guard Aaron Craft said.

“We’re a much better team than when we played, as well. Even if we didn’t have Jared, I think we’d be a better basketball team. It’s not about a game we had back in December. That’s such a long time ago.”

Matta agreed with Craft’s assessment of the value (or lack thereof) of the two team’s first meeting, stating that it’s hard for any team to maintain a certain level of play over the course of an entire season.

“They have made, as we have, the natural progression,” Matta said.

“Everybody’s gotten a little bit better, everybody’s gotten a little bit tougher, everybody understands the system that they’re playing.”

Matta’s Best Job

Thad Matta
Photo by Jim Davidson
Thad Matta

With a team that started off ranked No. 3 in the nation, many haven’t found OSU’s Final Four run unlikely, but with a roster that possesses just one senior and a junior in his first year playing for the Buckeyes, many are considering this to be Matta’s best coaching job in his eight years in Columbus.

Aside from forcing personalities and playing styles to mesh, Matta said that technology of all things has made this year’s team difficult to coach at times.

“This is, at times, crazy, with the type of things the players deal with, the media and the social networking and all that stuff. I’ve always said that every time you break a team huddle, the first thing guys do is grab their cell phones,” Matta said.

“I just tell them what they did wrong, and they grab their phone, and everyone’s telling them what I did wrong.”

Craft heaped praise on Matta’s coaching performance this season, stating that he’s a great role model for him and his teammates to be around.

“One of the best thing’s about Coach is he’s the same on the court as he is when he’s off the court,” Craft said.

“He’s always got a lot of fire and he’s just a guy that you like to be around.”

Media Motivation

Although Matta has certainly done his fair share of motivating this season, perhaps some of the Buckeyes most important bulletin board material has come from the media. Three days after thanking the media for negative comments following OSU’s Elite Eight victory over Syracuse, Sullinger again let the media know how important their criticisms of the team have been.

“We thank y’all for all the criticism that y’all gave us,” Sullinger said.

“It was awesome that this basketball team took its lumps early and realized that we could actually win, even in the times that we played bad.”

Matta said that he doesn’t mind what his players use to get them motivated for games- as long as it accomplishes just that.

“I want our guys to play their best basketball,” Matta said. “How they get to where they need to get, I really don’t care.”

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