Starting Five: Ohio State-Cincinnati Sweet 16 Preview
By Ben Axelrod
For the third-consecutive year- and for the fourth time since Thad Matta took over the program in 2004- the No. 2-seeded Ohio State men’s basketball team (29-7, 13-5 Big Ten) finds itself in the Sweet 16 and just one game away from playing for a Final Four berth. This season, the Buckeyes tournament run has brought them to Boston, where they’ll play No. 6-seed Cincinnati (26-10, 12-6 Big East) in a 9:45 PM tip that will air live on CBS.
The Buckeyes and Bearcats will be squaring off in Boston’s TD Garden, an arena rich with tradition and the home of the 17-time world champion Boston Celtics. As a self-proclaimed basketball junkie, OSU forward Jared Sullinger said that he’s looking forward to his first opportunity to play on Boston’s famous parquet floor.
“It's tremendous,” Sullinger said. “We can't wait for the experience, and hopefully we can play two games instead of just one here in this valuable arena.”
Despite the TD Garden removing its championship banners for this weekend’s regional finals, OSU guard Aaron Craft said that it’s still the same arena that hosted the Celtics 2008 NBA championship clincher.
“It's still the same place where so many great games took place and great basketball teams have played,” Craft said. “So it takes away a little bit, but at the same time, you're still in the same arena and you're still around the same people that they were.”
OSU and Cincinnati represent just two of the four teams from the state of Ohio to advance to this season’s Sweet 16. Joining the Buckeyes and Bearcats in the regional semifinals are Ohio University and Xavier, who combined with OSU and Cincinnati make the Buckeye State the first to ever get four teams this far into the tournament.
“Ohio, everybody knows them as a football state, but we have a little bit of basketball talent inside those borders,” Sullinger said. “It's just finally showing now.”
Having spent 13 combined years coaching in the state of Ohio, Matta said that Ohio’s record-setting tournament presence says a lot about how far basketball has come in the state.
“Obviously what I've felt all along is it's just a tremendous state for basketball. I think a lot of times in the high school ranks it gets tabbed as a football state, just all the great players that they've put out,” Matta said. “It takes a lot of luck for four teams to get here obviously, but by the same token, I think it speaks volumes to the level of basketball in the state.”
Scouting The Bearcats
Cincinnati may be one of the quickest teams that the Buckeyes will have faced all year. UC coach Mick Cronin has employed a four-guard starting line-up that has not only allowed the Bearcats to outrun teams on offense, but provide tremendous pressure defensively.
“You've got to do a great job taking care of the basketball. They're a team, as all great teams do, they convert off their turnovers,” Matta said. “They cannot only shoot the ball, but they go off the bounce and do a great job of spacing you out. We've got to use our length, we've got to use our athleticism and try to make them take as tough a shots as possible.”
The Big Defensive Player of the Year, Craft said that shutting down the Bearcats will come down to contesting their shots and rebounding their misses.
“Just try to do what we've done all year. We can't go too far from what we've set our defense on at the beginning of the year, just contest shots and hope they're missing,” Craft said. “They're going to shoot some longer shots, and if they are missing they're going to be longer rebounds. It would be very demoralizing if it would be double digit or even 20 second chance points or something like that would definitely hurt us and help them tremendously.”
Big Man Battle
Joining UC guards Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon, Jaquon Parker, and Cashmere Wright in the Bearcats’ starting line-up is forward Yancy Gates. At 6-foot-9, the Cincinnati-native is averaging 12.4 points to go along with a team-high 9.1 rebounds per game.
“It's going to be a physical match‑up. It's going to be similar to like Big Ten basketball. I believe he can shoot the basketball, so I'm going to have to guard him a little bit on the perimeter, as well, and he can post‑up,” Sullinger said. “He has a nice little mixture of moves down there. It's just going to be a physical basketball game.”
Matta agreed with Sullinger’s assessment that a physical Big Ten schedule will go a long way towards preparing the OSU big man for his matchup with Yates.
“Both are very, very physical type conferences. In that regard, I think we'll both have a pretty good understanding of what it's going to be like,” Matta said. “Just with the active hands, hands checking‑ going to the glass, the athleticism, the banging down low, those types of things, and that's something that I think they've done throughout the course of the Big East.”
Getting Over The Hump
After suffering dissapointing Sweet 16 exits in 2010 and 2011 to Tennessee and Kentucky respectively, the Buckeyes are hopeful that this will be the year that they advance to their first Elite Eight since their run to the National Championship Game in 2007. Matta said that not ending each of the past three seasons how he would’ve liked to makes him even more appreciative of where he finds his team today.
“For our team, this is a great situation, one that we cherish being in,” Matta said. “It's been a long road to get here, and each time you advance in this tournament it's like starting your season over again.”
Should the Buckeyes beat the Bearcats, they’ll meet the winner of Thursday night’s matchup between No. 1-seed Syracuse and No. 4-seed Wisconsin. Craft said that knowing that three quality teams are joining the Buckeyes in Boston makes it all the more easier to keep their focus on Cincinnati.
“We're all great teams, and I think we've all proven that to get to this point, and I think it can go either way with any one of us,” Craft said. “All four teams here are really good basketball teams and have shown that they can win tight basketball games even as of late. It's hard to say who would be the hottest team coming in.”