Coaches, Players Downplay Significance of OSU-Cincinnati Rivalry
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS — In the basketball world, much of the focus surrounds Ohio becoming the first state ever with four teams in the Sweet 16.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Ohio State coach Thad Matta is proud of having three fellow Ohio teams join him in college basketball’s regional semifinals this weekend, but any talk of the Buckeyes developing an in-state rivalry with their Sweet 16 opponent stops at the entrance to Value City Arena.
“It speaks a lot of Ohio from its high school programs, to its AAU programs, to its fan bases. It is a unique thing that the four teams are in it,” Matta said.
“In terms of having a familiarity with (Cincinnati)—probably not as much as one would think. I don’t see a whole lot of Big East games ... they’re not a whole lot of guys from the state of Ohio in terms of who plays for them.”
Thursday (9:45 p.m. ET, CBS) will mark just the second time in the past 50 years that the Buckeyes will battle the Bearcats. That’s not because of any lack of desire from a Cincinnati team that would love a shot at an OSU program that has been to four Sweet 16’s and a Final Four appearance in eight years under Matta.
On Tuesday, Matta didn’t deny being reluctant towards facing an in-state opponent if it required the Buckeyes to play a home-and-home series in-state, but also said that OSU hadn’t recently received any calls regarding an annual match-up with the Bearcats.
“It’s probably highly unlikely,” Matta said of a potential season series with Cincinnati.
The last time the Buckeyes battled the Bearcats was in 2006, when the two teams played each other in the John R. Wooden Classic. Prior OSU’s 72-50 win over Cincinnati in Indianapolis more than five years ago, the last time the Buckeyes and Bearcats played was in the 1962 National Title Game. That game marked the second-consecutive year that Cincinnati defeated OSU for a national championship, something that Matta said wouldn’t play a factor when the two programs reunite in Boston semifinals.
“I wasn’t even born, I was born six years afterwards,” Matta said.
“I don’t think those guys are that tuned into it. They may know. Nobody’s asked me about it in those terms.”
Much like Matta, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin downplayed the history—or lack of recent history—between the two teams. Be said all that matters is the circumstances that have now given the Bearcats their shot at the Buckeyes.
“I have great respect for their program. Other than that, they're the next team we play,” Cronin said following Cincinnati’s third round tournament victory over Florida State.
“These guys have a goal. We have a goal, and, you know, we get in the tournament to win it. I want my guys thinking that way because I believe in them. It's important that they know that I believe we're capable of winning the whole tournament.”
This season, Cincinnati has overcome a 5-3 start that culminated in a nasty bench-clearing brawl with intercity rival (and fellow Sweet 16 team) Xavier. Since its Dec. 10 game loss to the Musketeers, Cincinnati has compiled a 21-7 record, including an appearance in the Big East title game and NCAA Tournament wins over Texas and Florida State.
Over the course of their journey to Boston’s regional semifinals, the Bearcats have used a starting line-up that consists of four guards in an attempt to outrun their opponents.
“They are playing great basketball right now,” Matta said.
“They’ve really found their rhythm in terms of how they’re playing. Their guards are multidimensional.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
A four guard line-up could wind up actually being an issue for Cincinnati, who will likely use 6-foot-4 Sean Kilpatrick to defend 6-foot-7 OSU forward Deshaun Thomas.
“They pose tremendous matchup problems because of the way Deshaun Thomas is playing lately. He's been off the charts the times I've seen him,” Cronin said.
“Other than that, just for us, we got eight wins over ranked opponents. Looks like we're going to have to keep doing that.”
Joining Kilpatrick and fellow guards Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright, and Jaquon Parker in Cincinnati’s starting line-up is forward Yancy Gates. The 6-foot-9 Gates is one of the four players that Cronin temporarily suspended as a result of the Xavier brawl, and is averaging 12.1 points per game to go along with a team-high 9.1 rebounds per night.
A native of Cincinnati, Gates has his work cut out for him on the defensive end of the floor, where he will match up with OSU’s All-American sophomore Jared Sullinger.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I've been playing a lot of good bigs this season. I just get ready to play against another great player, you know, with a lot of hype,” Gates said.
“I'll be prepared. I'll be ready for the challenge.”
Cincinnati will be playing for its first trip to the Elite Eight since 1996. That’s enough motivation for the Bearcat players, who don’t seem too fazed by the fact that they’ll be playing a team whose campus is just two hours away from their own.
“I'm not that big on the history. We're kind young to think about that. It will be a great challenge,” Kilpatrick said.
“Both teams have great talent, and it will be another game like this one or even more tougher. I mean, we know how tough they are, but we're also a tough team as well.”
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, are looking to snap a two-season streak of Sweet 16 exits in order to play for the right to their first Final Four bid since 2008. Similarly to Kilpatrick and Cronin, Matta isn’t concerned with the location of the opponent that OSU will have to go through to get there.
“This is more about the NCAA Tournament. This isn’t about Ohio State-UC,” Matta said.
“This is about trying to get to the Elite Eight and play for the National Championship.”